As an 18-year-old tourist traveling on my own for the first time, I caught a bus in Israel. I was en route to Jerusalem after landing in Tel Aviv, and I snatched up a window seat in order to take in the passing view.

A young Israeli woman took the seat beside me. She was dressed in military garb. Despite finding her attractive, I resisted the temptation to say hello upon seeing the machine gun slung casually over her shoulder. To this day it remains beyond me to make small talk with a woman holding a machine gun.

When it comes to military defence, Israel doesn’t muck about. It would be tempting to think, then, that this would create a highly rules-based culture, yet surprisingly, much of the thinking in the Israel Defense Forces, and indeed in the nation’s businesses as well, tends to be precisely the opposite.

In the book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Dan Senor and Saul Singer write: ‘The entire Israeli military tradition is to be traditionless. Commanders and soldiers are not to become wedded to any idea or solution just because it worked in the past.’ This is one of the mantras that drives original thinking and continual learning within the IDF, and we can learn a great deal from it.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been attacked by surrounding armies no less than seven times. From day one, commentators have been predicting that the small nation, still today only six-million strong, will eventually be wiped off the face of the map.

Despite staggering odds, though, it hasn’t happened. The Israel Defense Forces has won every war it has ever engaged in, and most of its battles, and is often regarded as among the finest armies in the world. Their strength comes not only from their high-tech equipment, but also from the lateral thinking and culture of learning with which this equipment is deployed. And the cultures of learning and lateral thinking are endemic to the people. The nation of Israel today is as well known for its disproportionate level of successful business start-ups as it is for its military prowess.

A 2016 Forbes article noted, ‘Not even the size of New Jersey, with a population smaller than New York City’s, Israel is home to more Nasdaq-listed companies than any other country except the US and China.’

Per capita, Israel has more start-ups, more venture capital and more tech companies than any other nation on earth.

Senor and Singer argue that this duality of military strength and business brilliance is no coincidence. The agile strategic thinking taught by the IDF is, at least in part, also responsible for the success of the nation’s entrepreneurs. Every young Israeli, male or female, must serve in the military, and the resultant thinking carries over into the businesses they join or create afterwards.

Question the Commander? Yes, if there is unity of purpose

Conventional wisdom tends to hold that armies are most effective when they are highly rule-bound and obedient, and when soldiers have been drilled into habituated patterns of action. ‘Never question the commander. Do as you’re told. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense.’ A study of the IDF presents a strong argument for the opposite approach.

The notable starting point is that IDF soldiers are utterly united in purpose, in the sense that they are not merely ‘performing military service’ the way citizens in any other nation might grudgingly do so.

This unity of purpose – as opposed to conformity to rules – makes a big difference. Consider: if you have an organisation that is low on adherence to rules and low on unity of purpose, you will have chaos. But if you have an organisation that is low on rules and high on unity of purpose, things are different. You create urgency to do, while also allowing for lateral thinking. You will tend to spur creative innovation and problem-solving abilities.

Tactical innovation comes from the bottom up.

Historian Michael Oren, who served in the IDF as a liaison to other militaries, says, ‘The Israeli lieutenant probably has greater command decision latitude than his counterpart in any army in the world.’

Debate the living daylights out of everything

Each day in the Israel Defense Forces ends with a gruelling debrief of everything that happened that day, regardless of what else is happening on the battlefield or in the nation. And everyone participates, from the highest to the lowest, and everyone is invited to argue and haggle. Every action and decision is examined, reviewed, debated, mulled over and argued to within an inch of its life.

Here we find some striking parallels between the IDF and agile organisations like Pixar and Tesla, which also institutionalise debate.

In all cases, they care about one thing: what works and what doesn’t. And they disseminate this information up and down the chain, debating better ways as they continually evolve.

Military historian Edward Luttwak observes that, ‘Instead of the quiet acceptance of doctrine and tradition, witnessed in the case of most other armies, the growth of the Israeli army has been marked by a turmoil of innovation, controversy and debate.’

The result of this incredible willingness to allow – even encourage – constructive dissent, is a military force that remains among the strongest on earth.

Unite people in purpose. Remove tradition. Encourage debate. Make debate the new tradition. It lays the groundwork for innovation and agility. And the results can foil every prediction of doom and annihilation.



Douglas Kruger specialises in dismantling needless rules. A business presenter and author of 5 books with Penguin Random House, including ‘They’re Your Rules, Break Them!’, he speaks locally and internationally on the topic of disruptive innovation and how to reduce your own rules in order to achieve it. Douglas is also a multiple award-winning speaker, who was inducted into the ‘Speakers Hall of Fame’ in 2016. See him in action at


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