It is Remembrance Day. In line with my interests in change management and building constituency, I read "One Tribe at a Time: A strategy for success in Afghanistan" by Major Jim Gant. My understanding of the War in Afghanistan in 2009 when this was written is very basic... but based on the information presented, this is the most compelling strategic change plan I have read.
The scale and complexity of the challenges, along with the brutal realities of failure in a war environment, put the digital/social change project I spend time thinking about into perspective! The external technology revolution we are all experiencing with digital/social communications - and the internal transformation organizations must go through to keep pace (the subject of many of my posts) - now feels like a walk in the park on a warm spring day with an ice cream. Having said this, I do see parallels.
My take on it:
- The vision is; To disrupt, dismantle and defeat the terrorist network, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To prevent the return of al-Qaeda in either country in the future and to facilitate security and prosperity for the Afghan people.
- A key cultural factor is the fundamentally different structures of America and Afghanistan: a central governance model vs a distributed tribal system.
- Major Jim Gant's strategy involves working with Pashtunwali tribes; one 'Tribal Engagement Team' building constituency with one tribe, eventually scaling to reinforce existing tribal structures right across the country, to partner with them against al-Qaeda. This makes sense because the Pashtunwali tribal system is centuries old - it's all they know - and they are likely to resist foreign intervention (like attempted structural change) to the death.
Implementing the proposed strategy would require institutional change and a shift in leadership style:
- Approval to pilot the strategy would require imagination and trust from leadership.
- Aligning with this approach at full scale would require transformation of the US Army, including a significant paradigm shift.
- Communications would need to be overhauled from command and control to, perhaps, Social Architecture, slide 6.
- Approvals processes would need to change - some efforts would need to go ahead with no approval.
- 'Trust and approval' would need to be agreed upfront (sounds a little like having Social Computing Guidelines, e.g. my employer IBM's).
- The risk-averse nature of staff would need to change - they'd need to be willing to 'get out there', partner and collaborate with the tribe/constituency to co-create value.
- Staff must be allowed to go 'native' and interact with external tribes at all levels (can staff in your organization openly collaborate with people externally about their non-confidential work e.g. on a blog, LinkedIn Group or via Twitter).
- Funding models must be streamlined, so staff have the power to do what makes sense (to draw a parallel with digital marketing and communications, this might be investing in new listening capabilities, developing locally relevant content for a key constituency in market and funding ongoing metrics and analytics to derive actionable insights).
- Likely resistance from US ground commanders (I think all change agents can relate to that one).
Major Gant listed this familiar sounding challenge: "Identifying, attracting and training personnel who could perform this type of mission would be a daunting task". This seems to come back to the need for a new (or, perhaps, old) predominant style of intrinsically motivated, transformational leadership:
- More parallels here: Finding leaders with integrity, 'Strength and Honor' who can 'build constituency': incl. building rapport across cultures / cross-function, listen, empathise, understand, learn, then 'influence without authority', plus continually assess the status against the vision and successfully iterate on the strategy and implementation over time.
- Initial leaders would need the imagination to go against the grain of what the institution rewards, be willing to pilot it (start small and think big).
- Importantly they'd need the commitment/perseverance to stick with it, to allow the project to benefit from the 'Chinese bamboo tree' style phenomenon described on p37 (little growth in first years, explosive growth / return in five years). They might need to influence up too, to ensure their project was provided ongoing support.
Major Jim Gant, you say you're not a writer, not a strategist, not an academic - but I found this very thought provoking from the perspective of strategy and change (and applied cultural anthropology). Plus I was compelled to read to the end. I hope others do too.
I'd love to hear what has happened since 2009 - and what was learned along the way. I vaguely recall hearing from David Meerman Scott that the US Army is transforming in line with the digital/social communications revolution, perhaps along the lines of parallels drawn above? I wonder if this might have helped.
Interested to hear others thoughts too.
P.S. Tip of the hat to Luc Galoppin (as he would say) for telling me about the ebook.