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Gen. Stanley McChrystal: Adapt to Win in the 21st Century

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Gen. Stanley McChrystal: Adapt to Win in the 21st Century

In a Stanford GSB presentation, the retired general explains how to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.
General Stanley McChrystal | Associate Press photo by J. Scott Applewhite

In 2003, Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command of the United States' Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an association of elite forces such as the Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Delta Force. His mission: to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

JSOC had superior technology, skills, and resources. They were far better organized, with outstanding troops, and they won every individual firefight. "By the summer of 2004, we were also losing," says McChrystal. "We were doing all the things we'd been taught to do, but they weren't working like they used to work."

He came to realize that they were using outdated organizational structure, one that prized efficiency above all else, in rapidly evolving, 21st-century conditions that instead favored adaptability.

For decades, principles of efficiency — breaking a job into smaller tasks and doing each with the least effort and time — were taught in business schools, and businesses thrived because of it, McChrystal says. But in today's changing environment, with more information shared at ever-greater speeds, often even the most efficient organization can't keep up.

The secret to success today is adaptability, he says. Here are five key ideas for leaders to keep in mind.

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Let Go of "The Right Way"

McChrystal still marvels at JSOC's old organizational hierarchy as a model of order, with functional groups operating within silos and a chain of command for communication. The problem, he says, is that the old way "assumed that an organization had adequate time for information to flow through those pathways."

Iraq Lesson

Al-Qaida's operations in Iraq, on the other hand, were a loose network of associations built on personal relationships. "We kept trying to map out their structure on a whiteboard," he says, "top out and tiers down — but they never got that memo." They were structured organically, which could be less efficient, but it gave them superior adaptability.

So McChrystal worked to meld the two approaches: "We tried to take the best of what we do, put it together with extreme adaptability, and change the way we thought and operated to make it work."

Beware of Predictive Hubris

Despite having copious intelligence, GPS information, and a wealth of other data, JSOC wasn't able to effectively anticipate events. Having more information feels empowering, but "more data does not equal more predictability," McChrystal says. He cites a classic decision-making study, in which horse-racing experts were given information to predict the outcome of a race, and asked their level of confidence in their prediction. For a second race, the experts received double the amount of information. With more information, accuracy didn't improve at all, but the experts' confidence in their predictions was much higher.

The potential for predictive failure in today's environment is even greater, he says, because not only do we have exponentially more data to give us false confidence, but that increased data can lead a situation to shift quickly, citing the Arab Spring as an example. "Exponentially, that which we are trying to measure and predict is more complex," he says. "The danger is to take all this information, to watch in Tahrir Square and say, 'we know what's happening in Egypt.'"

Strive to Scale Shared Consciousness

JSOC had the most elite small teams — the kinds of teams in which every member has the same information and a synchronized sense of purpose — in the form of Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Delta Force.

The problem was that, at the next level up, the organization lacked that tight communication and shared consciousness. "Not everybody can know everything," says McChrystal, "but you have to have enough linkage so that it pulls you into a similar relationship that the small team enjoys."

When McChrystal took over command of JSOC, he held a daily update among 50 or so top leaders in the organization. "By the time I gave up command, it was more than 7,000. We did it every day," he says, a 90-minute update for essentially the whole command to spread awareness and synchronization. Of course, every organization will need to take its own approach, but the bottom line is that "you need a robust communication form for everybody to develop a shared consciousness," he says.

Make it Personal

Not only does the larger group need to share information, but it also needs to create broad emotional ties across the organization, he says. "You've got to be emotionally tied, because people act on emotion."

McChrystal began by moving everyone involved with a single operation to the same base location. So surveillance pilots (who typically would be stationed with aviation personnel) and on-the-ground operators (typically stationed with operators) would end up eating in the same mess hall. "I wanted the pilot who's going to fly that very sensitive reconnaissance mission during the attack to run into the operators who had been on the mission," he says. "If one of them had screwed it up, I wanted them to see each other eyeball to eyeball."

He also began embedding Navy SEALS into Delta Force teams, and vice versa, a move some considered a sacrilege. "But it worked," he says.

Empower the "Doers" to Think

The old organizational model for the Army — as well as for business organizations — was to have the decision-makers at the top of the hierarchy and the doers at the bottom, taking orders from the thinkers. But this approach can't work in a fast-changing world, McChrystal says, one in which it's important not just to get things right, but to get them right quickly enough to win.

The key for his command, he says, was to "change the thinkers into doers and the doers into thinkers, and everybody became both." To succeed meant decoupling the traditional relationship between information and control. "Now we could get the information to everybody, and more people could control what they did, which allowed us to do what we call empowered execution."

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