Written by General Stanley McChrystal, this book describes the challenges faced by the US Military in the conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after 2003.
McChrystal provides a good history to illustrate why the US Military looks, sounds, walks, and talks the way it did at that time. The countless changes to everything the military did over 200 years had created a behemoth that was very efficient at doing its job, however it wasn’t able to adapt to the rapidly changing environment that AQI had created and in which they were thriving. Though ruthlessly efficient, they were not effective.
McChrystal defines the changes that he felt were necessary to allow them to reach the point where they could adapt quickly to unexpected changes in the fight against AQI and therefore become more effective.
First he started by building relationships between teams. He points out that most elite teams like to compete against each other for bragging rights if nothing else, which eventually creates teams that aren’t really working together toward the same goal. He wanted to have teams that broke down some of that mentality and worked with all the other teams involved in the conflict – in the field, in the command center, in the intelligence teams, in the embassies around the world, and all the rest.
McChrystal began embedding talent from one team in another team for six months at a time. He made his leaders choose the best soldiers for these posts. He wanted the best possible soldiers to be the face of his strategy. This was the first step in building stronger connections between teams, and therefore building trust between them.
Next, he pushed decision-making downward to his subordinates to increase the speed of operations. He simply removed himself as a bottleneck from the flow of information and decisions. Where he felt he asked a few basic questions about the situation then gave his approval, he allowed his subordinates to simply make the decision and then update him to the logistics and details. He pushed this approach down further so teams in the field of battle could make faster decisions as well. This eliminated time spent requesting approval potentially through several layers of leadership. Minutes counted and they needed speed most of all. Surprisingly, where he thought there would be a degradation in the quality of decisions, he found that decision-making actually improved. Soldiers take it seriously when so many lives are on the line.
Finally, rather than acting as a strategist telling troops where to go or what to do, he made himself a “gardener” by simply nurturing the environment he had created and allowed the machine to function more like a complex organism. The speed of actions increased dramatically, and the fight against AQI turned in the favor of the US Military for the first time.
The book would have been an exciting and enjoyable read from start to finish, but the countless examples McChrystal used to illustrate ideas became monotonous and it hurt the book in the end. He borrows extensively from the histories of business, politics, manufacturing, military successes and failures, leadership decisions, etc. Though it’s a well-established approach to make a point (or many points) in a book of this nature, it became tiresome very quickly and lengthened the book needlessly.
The examples were so numerous and, to be honest, distracting that I skipped through several portions of the book to get back to his personal story which is where he should have stayed 95% of the time. Perhaps this is a bit harsh on McChrystal, but perhaps it’s also bad advice given by his publisher because it’s become the established formula in books of this nature… Which sort of goes against everything McChrystal says in the book about breaking down entrenched processes, routines and traditions to become more effective…