Monday, June 8, 2015

Your Structure Is Your Strategy


The theme of [General McChrystal's] book is that in the Information Age, hierarchical organizations cannot keep up with networked organizations. Those in a hierarchy may work as hard as they can, but the structure of their organization—with information going up the ladder and orders coming down—simply make them too slow to react in time [..].

McChrystal [..] first fought in Iraq and then became the American commander in Afghanistan [..  His book] reminds me of a similarly humble book by another general, William Slim’s Defeat Into Victory, (Cooper Square Press, 2000) his account of being pushed out of Burma by the Japanese, retraining his force, and then going back into Burma and ousting the Japanese. In both cases, the heart of the story is sober self-examination by a general: What am I doing wrong? What assumptions of mine are wrong? I have good soldiers, so why are we ineffective?

McChrystal’s story is about his fight in Iraq against al Qaeda. As he is the first to concede, he went into Iraq in 2003 full of hubris, believing that he led the best Special Operations organization in the world. Yet, to his surprise, al-Qaeda ran circles around him. And his intelligence operation, he realized, was “pathetic.”

Unlike most of our other generals in Iraq then, he forced himself to ask some uncomfortable questions: “If we were the best of the best, why were such attacks not disappearing, but in fact increasing? … Why were we losing?”

In trying to answer those questions, his first great insight was to see that a military is only as good as its ability to deal with its environment, so an organization that is effective one day might be weak and feckless the next, if its context changes while it does not.

First he and his comrades tried their best to work harder, faster, and longer. This led to a near-doubling of their task force’s output, from 10 raids a month to 18. Yet that proved insufficient. Al-Qaeda still outran him, adapting to changes in the environment faster than his outfit did. He was leading an Industrial Era force—hierarchical, controlling information, issuing orders—against an Information Age enemy that did not have such friction in its system. He realized, he writes, that, “We were an outstanding 20th century organization, but that was of little use in the twenty-first century.”

This leads to his second great recognition: That efficiency should not be his overwhelming goal. This view still is heresy in the U.S. Army, where job performance evaluations were called “Officer Efficiency Reports” for eight decades, until 1973. (They are still termed “OERs,” but since then “E” has stood for “evaluation.”)

Rather, his top priority became adaptivity. Becoming adaptive proved messy and indirect, and meant taking time to build trust in his network. But he found that unlike being efficient, it led him to success. “In the time it took us to move a plan from creation to approval, the battlefield for which the plan has been devised would have changed. By the time it could be implemented, the plan—however ingenious in its initial design—was often irrelevant.” The U.S. military was strong and efficient, but the enemy was agile and resilient, and that counted more. Operating within the traditional structure of the American military, he says, was like asking a soccer player to get written permission from the coach before passing the ball.

So he tried operating differently, in ways that made him uncomfortable, and even now might appall many other of our top generals. He forced decision making downward, giving his people his intent and sitting back to watch them absorb new data and act on it. He decided that concentrating on information security actually increased risk. Rather than try to control information, on the traditional “need to know” basis, he focused on finding new ways to share it, broadcasting it across the American national security establishment, not just within Special Operations but with parts of the regular Army and with the CIA, FBI, and others. This was because it was never clear who in his and affiliated organizations really needed the information or was best positioned to act on it. Holding information close, he says, “might feel safe, but it is the opposite.” He also democratized discussion, debating issues in front of hundreds of subordinates on his electronic network, familiarizing them with his goals and concerns, and so enabling them to act quickly in the field, without seeking clearance.

To his surprise, he found that his task force’s decision making became not just faster, but better: “We had decentralized on the belief that the 70 percent solution today would be better than the 90 percent solution tomorrow. But we found our estimates were backward—we were getting the 90 percent solution today instead of the 70 percent solution tomorrow.”

In 2006, with the new system in place, he reports, he got a whopping increase in productivity, going from 18 raids a month to 300.

This leads him to a fascinating point, one I had never seen put quite this way: Your structure is your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals. In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.

Just as the Industrial Revolution required the invention of a new military structure—fast moving mass armies of illiterate soldiers overseen by specialized staffs—so too, McChrystal concludes, the Information Age requires significant adaptation by today’s militaries. I suspect he is right [..].

[M]aking these changes is almost certainly necessary. Successful militaries reflect the means of power in their time. The ships that carried the wealth of newfound lands to Europe were protected by other, faster ships carrying cannons. The railroads that drove 19th century economies also transformed the movement of militaries. Nowadays we derive much of our energy from nuclear power, which also provides the core of the most powerful weapon of our time.

Hence as we dive deeper into the Information Age, the familiar military organizations of the industrial era are likely to be forced to change. To do so, the first thing for the regular military to understand is that a network is not anarchy. It still has a leader, but instead of sitting atop a ladder, he or she is the central node in a distributed network. Envision a spider in her web, feeling every tug of every thread, overseeing it all, making sure the web is strong. Judging by this book, that will be the model for the successful military leader of the future; the one who harnesses the power of our age.