Shifting Culture for a Complex World

Gen. McChrystal on why decision-making should be distributed across organizations


When Gen. Stanley McChrystal first took the helm of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), he approved every operation in Iraq—about four a month. Two years later, “We were doing 300 a month, and I was approving none of them,” McChrystal said during his keynote address Tuesday at GEOINT 2015.

McChrystal, a retired, four-star general as well as former commander of JSOC and U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan, said culture changed so much during that part of his military career that approving operations was no longer his job.

Rather, he said his job was to create an environment in which decisions could be made at lower echelons, and “to help put people and things in a mindset and position to create something that operated with the kind of synergy you have to have in today’s world.”

Speaking just after the release of his new book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, McChrystal challenged the audience to rethink decision-making policies, referencing historical examples of how the traditional hierarchy our Nation has embraced for centuries doesn’t always work. Within traditional organizations, information starts at the bottom and works its way to the top, where decisions are made, and then it’s communicated back down for execution.

What McChrystal learned in Iraq was that his team—what he called an “extraordinary collection of individuals” probably better at what they do than any other organization—was a slow-moving, traditional hierarchy.

“We had to fundamentally shift our culture, processes, and approach into something much more akin to what Al Qaeda in Iraq had become: A network.”

Rather than trying to solve military challenges with an old system, McChrystal is known for shaking up the status quo—developing and implementing the current counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and creating a counter-terrorism organization that changed interagency operating culture.

In his keynote, McChrystal stressed the difference between “complicated” and “complex.”

“We often use them interchangeably, and that’s a mistake,” he said.

Whereas a car is complicated, we know we can turn the key and it will do the same thing time and again. Weather pattern models, in which tiny changes in variables create completely different outcomes, are complex. The effect of these complex events, he said, cannot be predicted.

“I was trained as an engineer,” McChrystal said. “The idea that a problem has two different answers on subsequent days is disturbing, but the reality is many things in a world of complexity with the speed of interconnectedness are impossible to predict.”

Organizations designed during the Industrial Age were intended to make people and machines more efficient, but such structures and processes now limit personnel because the environment they’re operating in is vastly different.

The rise of information technology has allowed groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS to leverage social media and other forms of communication in unprecedented ways, McChrystal said. As a result, these groups’ adaptability trumps a well-resourced, well-trained, and traditionally efficient military.

McChrystal concluded his keynote with some thoughts on leadership and how his own views have changed.

“I started to think about leaders as gardeners,” he said. “When you think about what a gardener does, a gardener doesn’t grow flowers or vegetables. A gardener creates the opportunity, shapes the ecosystem so plants have the opportunity to do what they do well. You’ve got to prepare the ground, you’ve got to do all the things that make it work, but you’re not growing anything.”

When you realize you’re a facilitator, he said, it’s a very different mindset.

“That steps you back a little from the heroic figure making all the decisions.”



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