Strategic Management: Another Name for Common Sense

As commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, the Task Force that undertook the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), General Stanley McChrystal saw his forces in 2006 increase the number of raids against the enemy from ten to three hundred per month, with only minor increments in personnel or funding. The raids were not only more numerous but more successful. This activity led to  locating and eliminating the top Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, AbuMusab al-Zarqawi. The story of this accomplishment and transformation of the Task Force from a superb organization for the 20th Century into a superb organization for the 21st Century is told by the author in this brilliantly written book.

The main components of this radical change in the organization were both anatomical, how the Task Force came to be structured, and physiological, the way the organization changed its culture and behavior. The leader of the organization went, in McChrystal’s words, from “puppet master to empathetic crafter of culture.”

This is a book on ‘Strategic Management,’ the art of creating and maintaining a competitive advantage over the adversary in war, in the corporate world or just in day to day life. Throughout the years many books have been written on strategy and many different names assigned to the manner in which each author definestheir method of creating competitive advantage. In describing the progression from failure to success in his fight against AQI, General McChrystal exhibits the quality that underlies all those methods: common sense.

The attitude of the leader

The author uses abundant cases, as well as examples, derived from his own life experience to define the path he followed as a leader of the team. What he learned about leadership, he says, owed more to watching his mother tend her garden than to West Point. She organized and maintained her patch and created an environment in which the vegetables could grow. As Task Force commander, he says, he began to view effective leadership as akin to gardening. Rather than following the heroic model of leadership, he saw his role as creating and maintaining the conditions in the Task Force for efficient work to flourish. He tended the garden. He went from moving pieces on a board, as in “rule bound” chess, to shaping the ecosystem – a complex network or interconnected system – in which the team would operate and thrive. He sought to maintain a constant example and message by means of very transparent behavior. “Thank you” became his most important phrase, making a point of addressing every member of the team by his first name.

Tending the garden is what the military call “battlefield circulation,” the constant presence of the leader in all locations and units. This was obtained by McChrystal by means of a daily Operational and Intelligence Brief, O&I. When he assumed command in 2003 the O&I was a “relatively small video teleconference,” involving a few participants. McChrystal opened it up to full participation, not only within the Task Force but also involving sister offices such as FBI and CIA, relevant embassies and key Washington-based departments. This made possible for the organization to attain what he terms a shared consciousness. Such an opening increased the risks of leaks and of misinterpretation of complex processes. He says, “anyone who wanted to beat us at bureaucratic politics would have all the ammunition they needed but this was not the fight we were focused on.”

Shared Consciousness” was one of the major attitudinal changes the Task Force commander instituted. The other one was “Empowered Execution,” a “radically decentralized system to push authority out to the edges of the organization.” McChrystal soon realized that he was not the best person to take all decisions but that decisions should be more properly taken by those closest to the situation at hand. Discussing this new manner of leading, the author makes use of military and aviation history. He describes how Admiral Horatio Nelson empowered his captains to act on their own initiative and how he cultivated the individual qualities of his subordinates as decision makers. His unorthodox battle strategy battle at Trafalgar evidenced his trust in his captains’ individual abilities, when he decided to attack the greater forces of the enemy in a line perpendicular to their ships, rather than parallel to them, as dictated by the traditional military strategy of the time. Such unorthodox maneuver created confusion among the adversaries, rendered their visual communications much more difficult and allowed his captains to act as individual strategic units during the fight. Although, he was mortally wounded at Trafalgar and much of the fight went on without his leadership, the French Vice-Admiral Villeneuve said after the battle: “In the British Fleet off Cadiz every captain was a Nelson.”

Anatomical transformations

In Iraq, the task of removing Saddam Hussein from power was a relatively easy one. However, by the fall of 2003 the fight had mutated into a confrontation against Sunnis led by a Jordanian extremist called Abu Musab al Zarqawi. This presented the Task Force with a new type of foe, not stronger than the Task Force, in military terms, but operating in a totally different environment, one that could be described as going from complicated to complex. It was, McChrystal says, not “a war of planning and discipline but one of agility and innovation.” The units of the enemy were self-contained and each operation was the brainchild of the men who owned the mission.

McChrystal says that the Task Force was the “best of the best” – a well-trained, superbly equipped, well-communicated and disciplined, but they were losing the war against the enemy. They were the best organization of the 20th Century facing an organization designed for the 21st Century. AQI was a modern version of Proteus, incessantly changing shape and faces with a speed the Task Force could not match.

For this to change, the Task Force went from an organizational closed configuration of silos to open relationships across units that had been traditionally proud of their uniqueness and had felt no need to share it with others. The Force had to swap their “sturdy architecture for organic fluidity.” The author says they had to “dissolve the barriers – the walls of our silos and the floors of our hierarchies – to become a “team of teams.” Adaptability, more so than efficiency, became the overriding priority. In explaining and justifying his approach McChrystal uses several cases from other sectors, including the medical world. He cites Dr. Kristina Talbert-Slagle saying that infections in the human body, such as AIDS and insurgencies such as Al Qaeda’s, had similar effects of weakening the host, be it the person or a society. He describes at length the success of Roman legions, based on discipline and adherence to strict rules and standardization, to conclude that this behavior no longer worked in the current environment. The reductionist times of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management,” he says, were largely over. Taylor had introduced the concept of efficiency in the manufacturing world but a new dimension was now required: speed. By 2004, the Task Force realized Iraq presented a different challenge where tactical flexibility was essential. Millenary lessons about organizational structures and military procedure had to be set aside.

Physiological changes

A fascinating section of McChrystal’s book deals with the increasing complexity of the environment, where the Task Force had to act. Things were no longer complicated but became complex. While an internal combustion engine is complicated, its function remains predictable, if a component is changed. It works in a straightforward manner and its changes are linear and do not spread to other machines. Complex systems can experience non-linear change, even exponential in character. McChrystal illustrates complexity with the so-called butterfly effect, described by Edward Lorenz in his paper: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” A complex system, such as weather patterns or national economies, is an interconnected array of components which interact incessantly in a largely unpredictable manner.

While the success of the planning system of the Task Force had been based on its ability to predict outcomes, Iraq’s battlefield in 2004 looked more like a cold front than the trajectory of a celestial body. Actions taken by AQI could lead to country-wide civilian reactions that were difficult to anticipate. The strength of the Task Force remained important but adaptability became even more so. It was no longer enough, to use Peter Drucker’s maxim, to do things right but to do the right thing.

McChrystal resorted to networking. Rather than keeping the hierarchical top down rigid command structure with walls separating the different divisions of the organization, the Task Force went into a radical change from Command to Team. Using several cases, such as the safe landing on the Hudson River of U.S. Airways flight 1549, the author explains why “instinctive, cooperative adaptability is essential to high performing teams.” The actions taken by the crew of the aircraft during this flight were typical of a team, not of a top down command by Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

The Task Force transformed from one single bureaucratic organization into multiple teams, which trusted and communicated freely with each other. An organization can plan but cannot possibly cover all the possibilities. They have to be able to adjust to the unexpected with creative solutions. In a rapidly changing environment, the plan is no longer the dominant factor, the team’s behavior is. Once members of the team trust each member a superior synergy results, what the author calls an “emergent intelligence,” which can perform without the plan.

The best strategy: candor

A change from a bureaucratic organization into a flexible, agile “team of teams” was not the product of more manpower or more money but the result of integration among the units of the organization, an integration that was generated by the example of the leader and by his extreme candor. By the force of his example everyone started to talk to each other: operators, analysts, sister agencies. Up to then, the units had been operating independently from each other while trying to keep pace with a complex environment. There were horror stories about the indifference and jealousy of agencies such as the FBI or the CIA. In the name of security they did not talk to each other. In the new environment, every member of a team had to know every other individual in order to build trust. Furthermore, the relationships between teams had to resemble the relationship between individual members of each team. SEALS had to trust the CIA and vice versa. What had to prevail was not a spirit of competition but a spirit of cooperation. This had not been the case before. The author affirms that up to the change “more than once in Iraq we were close to mounting capture/kill operations only to learn at the last hour that the targets were working undercover for another coalition entity.

A textbook on ‘Strategic Management’

This elegantly written book is not only a brilliant memoir of General Stanley McChristal’s war against Al Qaeda in Iraq but it also serves as a textbook on strategic management and human relations. It can equally apply to our business world and to our life in society. Its main theme is simple but powerful: share information freely and empower those who are close to the problem to allow them to decide. If, as they say, information is power, don’t keep it in the foot locker, share it freely and see how this magnifies your own power, not through raw authority but through gravitas.

I have always felt that, at the root of successful management science, which is usually adorned with high sounding and sophisticated terminology, are two rather simple but powerful human qualities: candor and moral courage. I am glad to see these two ingredients present in Team of Teams.

Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela  (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia.  Mr. Coronel was also the Venezuelan Representative of Transparency International, a Berlin-based organization fighting corruption. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.