Fighting Yesterday’s War in Tomorrow’s World

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In the fall of 1914, the interlocking alliances of Europe turned a single assassination of the heir to a 2nd-tier empire into the horror of World War I. A mere three weeks after Germany declared war on France, the mighty French army suffered its single worst day of casualties in its history – 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single 24 hour period on Aug 22, 1914, along the multiple fronts of what is known as the Battle of the Frontiers. A major world power, the French army had all the men and material necessary … unfortunately, they marched into the meat-grinder of WWI with equipment, tactics, and a mindset better suited for the First Battle of Manassas in the 19th Century than the First Battle of the Marne in the 20th Century.


French Troops WWI

Against machine guns and heavy artillery, marching in a large, tight formation armed with bayonets and wearing bright red pants and hats is a sure sign of obsolescent thinking … and a certain death sentence to the men charged with putting action to that thinking.


After the brutal carnage of World War I and the untold damage to the French nation and her people, France pledged to never allow history to repeat itself. To prevent a future German invasion, the French military planners threw efforts and resources behind the construction of an impregnable wall of defense: the Maginot Line. Consisting of heavily fortified defensive positions and making use of the natural terrain, the Maginot Line made the French-German border impenetrable.

Of course, the German tanks and troops simply went around this impenetrable barrier, blitzkrieg-ing into Northern France by way of the Netherlands and Belgium, while the German Luftwaffe simply flew over it. A mere seven weeks later, France surrendered.


The point here isn’t about France.

General Stanley McChrystal led the preeminent fighting force of the 20th Century — the US Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) — into its first 21st Century-type battle with the hydra-like forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004. Like France’s Maginot Line, the JSOTF was born of a “‘never again’ mentality” in response to the special operations disaster in 1980 known as Operation Eagle Claw. As McChrystal writes in his book, Team of Teams:

In the aftermath, the Holloway Commission … recommended the creation of a specially focused Joint Task Force to coordinate and plan American special operations. It was a “never again” mentality. We needed a new management tier at the top — a new level of reductionist architects of process to ensure that things clicked together  with the precision of [Frederick Winslow] Taylor’s factory floor at Midvale.

Instead of concrete fortified bunkers to defend against an invasion force from the past, the JSOTF built an organizational structure to defend against the management failure of the past. Despite being an infinitely better resourced, staffed, trained, and efficient fighting force, the JSOTF found itself asking why it was losing to an enemy that enjoyed none of those advantages. This reality was gruesomely punctuated on Sept 30, 2004, when AQI successfully detonated two separate car bombs at a sewage plant opening ceremony, killing over three-dozen children who had gathered to get candy from the American soldiers as part of the civic celebration.

In this fight, success had become inversely proportional to classic resource advantages. According to McChrystal, the answer to this inexplicable riddle lay in the very organizational structure and operating mentality of the JSOTF. He explains:

Our struggle in Iraq in 2004 is not an exception — it is the new norm. The models of organizational success that dominated the twentieth century have their roots in the industrial revolution and, simply put, the world has changed. The pursuit of “efficiency” — getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money — was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency.


The point here isn’t about militaries fighting wars. It is about how organizations and their leaders think about the nature of the world they are facing, and the thinking that underlies the decisions of strategy, tactics, resource deployment, and the like. Gen. McChrystal’s book is not about war fighting either. He and his team of co-authors use JSOTF’s experience fighting AQI in 2004 and beyond to make a much more broad and valuable point: the world has drastically changed for everyone operating within it. While it is so important to learn from the past, it is even more imperative to avoid the trap of preparing to face the same challenges of the past.

In a world of networks, are you still trying to succeed with the same top-down, centralized decision-making structure of Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s early 20th Century steel plants? In a world of ubiquitous information and instantaneous communication, is your organization optimizing for 20th Century efficiency or 21st Century adaptability?

(If you want an oral primer on the book Team of Teams, I highly recommend listening to one of the co-authors, Chris Fussell, during his appearance on The Learning Leader Show.)