What The Bin Laden Raid Teaches About (Project) Execution

The Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound was the ultimate lesson in project management. Here are four relevant lessons in planning, executing, and shifting on a dime.

Chances are, your day’s actions and decisions don’t have the life or death consequences of a Navy SEAL operation. Then again, members of the elite military unit have to deal with the same cognitive blocks and planning hassles you encounter right at your desk. So apply some of the same planning and execution strategies of a SEAL in your smaller-scale wars. Here’s a few insights you might glean from the SEALs most famous recent operation that ended the 10-year hunt for Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Plan Backward From The Goal

Team Six, the crew of Navy SEALs that took out bin Laden, arrived at their mission site with two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, each with two pilots wearing night-vision goggles, a Pakistani-American translator, a dog, a laminated, gridded map of the compound, and a booklet describing the physical characteristics of the people suspected of being inside. One of those helicopters, heavily modified for stealth, was supposed to deposit a team on the compound roof, but crashed as the raid began, and had to be destroyed to preserve its technology. But the team ably adapted, stormed the compound, and eliminated their target.

When it came to verify bin Laden’s identity, though, the team came up lacking. They had to find a SEAL member who was six feet tall, and have him lay down next to bin Laden’s corpse (estimated at between 6-feet 4-inches and 6-feet 6-inches) for verification. A battle-hardened SEAL likely wasn’t traumatized by this makeshift measuring. But mentally moving backwards from the moment of victory might have kept that handy item on the checklist.

Then again, it would have denied President Obama his reported zinger: "We donated a $60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?"

Disprove Your Own Theories

Osama bin Laden died on May 2, 2011. By August 2010, however, C.I.A. officials had pinpointed the likely residence of bin Laden’s courier, and had observed in the compound a very tall man who hardly ever left his third-floor lodgings, and who absolutely never left the walled compound, where the trash was burned rather than taken out. Intelligence officials and Obama’s advisers ranged in their confidence, stating their beliefs at between 40 and 95% sure that the world’s most wanted man was right where they thought he was.

But the President’s advisers instead began an "interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, (one could) disprove the theory that bin Laden was there," John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told The New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle. In other words, as you’re racing toward a conclusion, one with a very satisfying return, find a way to summon up your own inner skeptic, or find someone who can play the role, and try to use your own facts to come to a different conclusion.

Every Team Member Must Know The Mission

The man who planned the special-operations raid in Abbottabad, Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, wrote a book on planning special-operations raids: Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. So it was only natural that someone—in this case, three sharp writers at Popular Mechanics, would compare the playbook to how a major raid played out. And it’s telling what factors an experience planner considers important in a crucial, fast-moving mission.

Multifaceted plans and the element of surprise? Not so great. Complex plans create "an overabundance of security (which) hinders effective preparation," and surprising an enemy isn’t much help if you cut corners enough so that you’re "ill-equipped to fight." More helpful, McRaney suggests, is that "in the heat of battle, no matter what else happens, the individual soldier understands the primary objective." McRaven also noted that anything that wasn’t rehearsed before a mission invariably failed, but you already know that from, say, almost any big software launch you can remember.

Know Your Most Important Question, And Who Can Answer It

Before anyone could actually assault the spot where bin Laden lived, it took 10 years to find that spot. Alliances and support of Afghan and Pakistani forces, elaborate bombing and drone surveillance coverage, and other standard tactics had yielded close misses, but bin Laden and al-Qaeda were eerily good at communicating orders, maintaining secrecy, and filling vacancies, even when the leaders seemed to be cut off. So the question moved from "Where is bin Laden?" to "How does he communicate?"

At the same time, the tactics moved from sending waves of troops into disparate locations—which looked like a more serious effort—to a less exciting small group of experts back home, immersing themselves in books and transcripts. As one intelligence official told the Washington Post, "Lots of people who knew little was almost certain to be less efficacious than a small, dedicated cadre of people with experience working the problem."

Reading bin Laden’s son quoted in a book on his father’s preference to stay in populated areas to avoid U.S. bombing tied in with vague mentions of a courier in intelligence reports and interrogation transcripts. Those eventually came together in a specific person, and meticulous checking and re-checking gave the best possible chance of finding bin Laden. And the rest is well-planned history.

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  • David Kaiser, PhD

    One and three are well-known, and make total sense. Number four is critical as well, if you are not getting the answer you want, you may well be asking the wrong question, ask a new one, and / or ask someone else. Number two is not so hard and clear. There are times when you can overdo the analysis, or slow things down so the advantage is lost. Before engaging this sort of heavy questioning, ask yourself about the consequences for making a mistake. If the price is fairly low, don't bother thinking so much, just do it and learn on the fly. If the cost is high (for example, killing the wrong person, tipping off the government and bin Laden) then you must definitely do your homework first. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach & CEOwww.DarkMatterConsulting.co...