Picture these two scenarios side by side in your mind: A 30-minute video conference to discuss strategy involving 50 people in two different countries and a 90 minute-long video conference involving anywhere from 7,500 to 9,000 people from all around the world.
Which do you think works best in terms of developing strategy? Which do you think will deliver better results?
And he explained that it is the second of those two meeting formats – the one most would dismiss out of hand as the least efficient – that shows why “adaptability” is now one of the most critical facets needed by businesses today.
McChrystal learned this lesson the hardest of ways, too; under fire in Iraq, in a situation he described as “bad and about to get much, much worse” when his special operations command hit the ground in late 2003.
For decades, McChrystal noted that he – as well as much of the U.S. military – functioned within the premise that finely-tuned hierarchical shaped chain-of-command “pyramids” guiding highly-trained troops equipped with the latest technology offered the most efficient avenue for conducting and winning wars.
Yet going to toe-to-toe with radical jihadists in Iraq – and much later in Afghanistan – changed that view, McChrystal said.
“For example, there are four key technologies we felt would give us superiority on the battlefield over our enemy; unmanned aerial vehicles or drones; night vision goggles for every soldier; precision weapons; and real-time almost instant communication technology,” he pointed out.
“In reality, we had the advantage with only three of those; via the Internet and today’s cell phones, we found our enemies could leverage communication better than we could,” McChrystal noted.
The reason proved simple: instead of a “top-down” command structure, the jihadist elements functioned more within what the general described as a “franchise” system, with each “franchise” operating independently to a high degree.
Information from the nominal “top” jihadist leaders could be spread very quickly, allowing its field troops to adjust their tactics almost on an attack-by-attack basis based on knowledge gleaned from every battlefield encounter with American troops.
Take suicide bombing operations using vehicles, for instance.
“We discovered that typically three vehicles would be involved,” McChrystal noted. “The first would veer off to create a distraction. The second would be the one loaded with explosives, with the often driver chained to the wheel with a hand held detonator.”
But the third vehicle proved the most important. “That one would follow the attack, filming the entire event,” he said – adding that it carried a second detonator as well, in case the suicide bomber changed his mind at the last minute (talk about gruesome).
McChrystal explained that film would provide two things: a visual record of the tactical response used by American troops and a “recruiting tool” as well. That film actually would get sent via the Internet out of Iraq, edited and “cleaned up,” and then sent back to the various jihadist fighter groups in Iraq, as well as broadcast worldwide.
That’s just one example of how the jihadists used modern communication to thwart American military efforts in the region. And that’s why McChrystal started making changes.
“Our counter-terrorism focus is to find their pyramid and wreck it,” he explained. “But they never had a structure like that to start with. They had no true hierarchy and used real-time information to adapt constantly. Our team structure wasn’t enough anymore; we needed to change because the environment kept shifting under our feet constantly.”
McChrystal’s answer: create what he describes as a “Team of Teams” that would link all the disparate elements of American military operations – Delta Force commandos, U.S. Army Rangers, helicopter pilots, intelligence analysts, etc. – into one vast real-time network.
That’s what precipitated the 90 minute, 9,000-person video conferences; McChrystal said it proved the best way to getting the latest information out to everyone, everywhere while at the same time making everyone part of every operation conducted against the jihadists.
“Those meetings were 30 minutes of briefing and 60 minutes of conversation; if anyone had anything to offer, they were to put it on the table,” McChrystal noted.
That also gave everyone a vested interested in every aspect of the missions being launched by the Special Operations command. “Now everyone got the ‘big picture’ of what we were trying to do,” he stressed. “That wide-open information changed everything.”
It also changed McChrystal’s leadership style as well; a change he champions strongly for any organization, military or non-military.
“As a leader today, you really need to think like a gardener,” he explained. “The plants already know what to do; they know how to grow, how to feed, how to produce vegetables and fruit. The gardener then prepares the ground for them, waters them, removes the weeds, harvests them, and protects them. Thus it is more about creating an ecosystem wherein the plants themselves can thrive and succeed.”
On the ground in Iraq, that meant going from 30 missions a month, each personally vetted and approved by McChrystal, to over 300 – some 10 per night – without his direct involvement.
And he stressed that allowing this sort of “autonomy” is not only critical to help teams “speed up” and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances more effectively, it creates more accountability, too.
“It gives people the ability to make faster decisions and have more confidence in their ability to make those decisions,” McChrystal noted. “But that information flow also allows everyone to see what everyone else is doing. That ensures everyone is moving in the same direction. And it’s why adaptability can create more outsized effectiveness and why it trumps traditional efficiency.”