How an Elite IDF Tech Unit Taught me 6 Key Skills for Running a Startup

startup mentality

There are only a few decisions in life that you can actually look back and say have changed your whole life.

One of my biggest was the decision to join the Talpiot elite technology unit.

Looking back, I was the typical high school nerd. While strong in the sciences, starting university at the age of 15, I was completely lacking in leadership skills.

The Talpiot program was established by Israel’s Chief of Staff after the Yom Kippur War when Israel was technologically surprised. The premise of the unit was simple: to make sure Israel would not be technologically surprised ever again. Initially, the program focused on science and technology, but it was soon apparent that for the new technology development, leadership is crucial. Usually, innovation is not done by a single individual. Coordinated team effort is essential. Talpiot taught me how to combine leadership and innovation and turned me from a tech geek into a startup founder and CEO. I still own my old highschool backpack with the sign “I am a proud geek” but, admittedly, I picked up some new qualities as well.

Some of the most powerful lessons I learned in Talpiot would apply to any startup leadership role. Here are six key techniques that I still use today:

1. Creative Effectiveness

Start-ups are hectic environments. However hard you work, some tasks will fall through the cracks. What’s the solution? Creative effectiveness.

The well-known 80/20 rule states that, for example, 20% of people drink 80% of beer. For us, it means that if you don’t prioritize your workday, 80% of value will come from just 20% of your time. You’ll be busy all the time but most of that time is spent on nonessential topics.

If you want to be effective, you need to focus on the essential tasks. And so, reverse the 80/20 rule: choose the most valuable 20% of all the tasks and devote 80% of your time to them.

Don’t accept things at face value. Instead, push your team to find effective solutions. This often produces creative solutions far faster than expected. Help your team by structuring the problem, facilitating a positive discussion and bringing resources across the organization to the task at hand. Make sure your team understands the underlying spirit of the task so that they have the right framework for thinking critically and finding the perfect “creative effective” solution.

At Aidoc, We reduced our new algorithm release cycle by more than 80% by not accepting the status quo and investing brainpower into thinking about what would really be necessary to make it work.

2. Professionalism and Structure

Startups are nimble, energetic, and fun, but they often ride the waves of chaos. That’s why startups must be rigorously professional; the ability to create structure in unstructured situations is at the core of managerial success.

The effective leader stays on top of every detail, summarizing meetings, sending follow-up emails, and setting an agenda. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create order, communicate effectively with internal and external stakeholders, and create a framework in which people can operate at their best. For some people, this is an innate talent. However, anybody can develop these skills by staying focused on creating “method in the madness” and always getting feedback.

Sticking to this culture is especially difficult in a startup, where the immense time pressure and workload provide a ready excuse for cutting corners. In my experience, strong detail-focused managers make use of their time more efficiently and demonstrate professionalism to customers and internal teams alike.

3. Kaizen

One of the strongest principles of management which can lead to market leadership is Kaizen — continuous improvement.

I could write an entire article on this principle, but here are some practical tools which can put you on the Kaizen path:

  • Ask for lots of feedback, make sure your team does the same, and be open to learning from it. Few people want to hear what’s wrong with their idea, solution or code. It takes time and effort to build a transparent process that allows for feedback to flow without negativity. However, when multiple people apply their logic and intuition to a project, it is much more likely to succeed.
  • Improvement is a proactive effort. Focus on finding ways to improve your areas of weakness. Structure your progress with explicit KPIs and make commitments by talking about them with other people.
  • Get a mentor! Someone who has been around the block can help you on your path to success.
  • Arrange Retro sessions for your teams so they can look back and understand how to improve as well.

In this way, you and your team can grow hand in hand with your business. One of the most important steps towards achieving excellence is allowing yourself to be challenged.

4. Thinking Ahead

It’s easy to get sucked into day-to-day tactics and execution. The here and now are important. However, thinking ahead is just as vital. Are we focusing on the right things? What resources will we need six months from now? Are there additional projects we should start working on?

Every company should have an operating system and rhythm of its own, and the best managers have their own personal clock which helps them understand when they need to raise their heads above the water, look over the horizon for safe shores and think ahead. Personally, I look back at the 80/20 rule that we discussed above. However, this time, it takes a different form: You are 100% committed to your product if you devote 80% of your time to your main activity. The remaining 20% is your strategic reserve, set aside for long term planning.”

If you are a technology type, spend 20% of your time tinkering today with the future version or next generation of your product.

5. Be an On-the-Ground-Leader (Genchi Genbutsu)

Coming from the Israeli Ministry of Defense, I am a firm believer in being an on-the-ground leader. If your people need you for a nuts and bolts task, the ideal managers make themselves available.

This approach has so many benefits, helping you get a first-hand understanding of the reality in the trenches. It also allows you to solve problems for your people on the spot, instead of wasting time on iterations. Last but not least, it allows you to actually motivate your personnel by seeing what it is like to be in their shoes.

6. The Lean Methodology

Finally, always look at your customers first. Why do I include this crucial point in the Lean methodology section? Because the Lean methodology emphasizes the importance of eliminating waste, reaching the market as fast as possible.

In the realm of the startup, waste is abundant. One of the biggest wastes is the time and money wasted on developing and trying to sell something that nobody wants or needs. Don’t just develop in the confines of the laboratory, as this doesn’t spark change or challenge assumptions. Learn from the experiences gathered through fast iteration and swift market integration.

When Aidoc was first moving from an idea to a viable solution, before it even had written its first line of code, the company built a User Experience model built on an old radiology image viewer and showed this proof of concept to radiologists. While this model could do little more than show radiologists how an AI-based workflow could potentially look, it taught us a lot about what these professionals actually needed… and, more importantly, what they didn’t. This philosophy continues to drive me today — every new product undergoes tens of iterations as fast as possible so we can minimize the time in the laboratory and maximize external exposure to ensure industry relevance.

When thinking about all of this, you may ask: where does a manager find time to adhere to all these principles? As one of my dad’s old jokes goes: “If you’re complaining that there are only 24 hours in a day, start an hour earlier.”

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