Inbal Arieli
March 3, 2019, Updated April 16, 2019

It started when Apple decided to produce its own custom artificial intelligence chips rather than using Intel’s, and continued with Tesla’s recent decision to start producing in-house AI chips for self-driving cars. In a world where automotive industry giants rely on Nvidia chips, Tesla is en-route to becoming self-sustainable.

The capacity to deliver performance and features ahead of market is essential for any company in a growing market, especially in its current volatility. A team in full control of its production, application of services and future development stands out as an industry leader.

However, breaking with established standards of business is not easy. It requires an ability to deal with uncertainty, pave a new path, and defy the traditional forces that are pursuing order. It requires a team and leader that flourish in situations of chaos.

I was privileged to learn this lesson from my beloved father, Motty Naggar (may he rest in peace), who as a young soldier was a member of the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal. Chaos was its bread and butter.

In 1957, 27-year-old battalion officer Avraham Arnan decided to gather a team of excellent soldiers. He couldn’t explain his actions. He simply knew that the Israel Defense Forces required a special-forces unit comprised of the crème de la crème of what young Israel had to offer.

Without a daily routine, clear training program, or even a military objective, Arnan’s vision came to fruition in the famous Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit.

In the early 1960s, sporadic recruitment resulted in an eclectic group of people from disparate personal and military backgrounds. Together, my father and his teammates formed Team Tubul, one of the first teams in Sayeret Matkal. Its story became a defining moment for the IDF.

Team Tubul, 1961-1962. Inbal Arieli’s father, Motty Naggar, is in the front row at far left. Photo courtesy of the Naggar family

Team Tubul was unlike any other unit – it was all of them combined. Members launched their improvised training program using navigation methods, learning to read old maps and translating them onto the field. They toured the country day and night, walking through the varied terrains in pairs. They learned every twist and turn by heart and perfected the skills of spatial orientation.

Within three months, the team could be dropped anywhere in the Middle East and find its way home. The team’s intensive training included weapons, parachuting, infantry, tanks, helicopters, field driving and car mechanics, hostage negotiation and resilience, and most other imaginable military skills.

They were the first to introduce bomb-disposal technology to the IDF, learning the technology on the fly. They became fluent Arabic speakers and familiarized themselves with Arab cultures and religions, as though they were theirs.

Whatever need surfaced, they provided on-demand solutions and additional training. They were constantly experimenting, tweaking and revising their methods.

Taking it one day at a time wasn’t easy, especially in organizations like the IDF that follow rules and protocols. But as my father used to tell me, “We must allow for chaos if we are ever to achieve greatness.”

Tal, the team commander, described their environment: “There was no route set by previous generations, and it was clear the road was being paved with our footsteps.”

Warming up to chaos

Sayeret Matkal became probably the most effective counter-terrorism force in the world. Indeed, it has taken on mythical status with its swift, surgical victories across the Middle East.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are Sayeret Matkal veterans. Many other key political and business figures prefer to conceal their service in this select unit.

Structuring a team to manage complexity, consciously or not, is vital for both elite military units and growth companies. Team Tubul trained itself to maintain stability within an inflexible, rigid structure on the one hand, and a disorderly, tumbling foundation on the other.

Chaotic Israel is an excellent case in point. Although examples like Apple or Tesla are few and far between, the startup landscape is warming up to the chaos in which elite military units naturally find themselves.

Take Gremlin, for example, a company that specializes in chaos engineering. Gremlin’s service is designed to increase the quality and reliability of systems and services by infesting them with system failure and disorder. Once inevitable flaws are exposed, the team works on solutions and rebuilding resilience.

Research has shown that growth companies that structure their environment to constantly encounter waves of disorder, catalysts to change, restructuring, and more disorder, are likely to become industry leaders, given their more efficient, resilient, creative, and in general more effective character.

The chaos-loving dynamic is an inseparable component of any elite military unit. It is also part and parcel of our business reality, whether we like it or not. Boardrooms are filled with questions and uncertainties about future skills, the nature of work, and how to stay relevant in a world without a playbook. Simply look at companies like General Electric, which, by its own admission, “needs to systematize change,” to understand that chaos is synonymous with reality.

Sayeret Matkal Team Tubul’s novelty was rooted in the understanding that there is no predetermined order and therefore, it’s useless to act as though there is. While members of Team Tubul went on to become entrepreneurs, innovators and successful businessmen, Sayeret Matkal went on to specialize in adapting to unforeseen circumstances – tantamount to achieving the impossible.

The team’s success stems from recognizing that disorder is flexible and brims with opportunity, while order is fragile and has well-defined boundaries.

Inbal Arieli was a lieutenant in the elite IDF intelligence 8200 unit and later took leading roles in the Israeli high-tech sector. Currently co-CEO of leadership assessment and development company Synthesis, she is the author of the forthcoming book Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Harper Business, August 2019).

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