5 Things I Learned in Combat
I recently returned from a year-long deployment to eastern Afghanistan where I commanded a detachment and provided direct support to both Combined Joint Task Force-101 (CJTF-101) and CJTF-1, which were led by the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division and the 1st Cavalry Division respectively. I spent the better part of the past year traveling throughout the 14 provinces, which comprised the Regional Command East. Whether on combat patrols with my forward teams or planning back at Bagram Airfield I learned a lot of lessons – here are five:
1. It Takes a Network
2. It Takes Integrity
3. Don’t Confuse Activity with Productivity
4. You can’t improve anything unless you measure it
5. Small Efforts Repeated Add Up to Great Results
1. It Takes a Network:
Retired US General Stanley McChrystal wrote an article entitled “It Takes a Network: The new front line of modern warfare” for the March/April 2011 edition of Foreign Policy. In it he wrote the following:
“In bitter, bloody fights in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it became clear to me and to many others that to defeat a networked enemy we had to become a network ourselves. We had to figure out a way to retain our traditional capabilities of professionalism, technology, and, when needed, overwhelming force, while achieving levels of knowledge, speed, precision, and unity of effort that only a network could provide.
Further into the article, he writes:
“It was clear, though, that in this fusion process we had created only a partial network: Each agency or operation had a representative in the tent, but that was not enough. The network needed to expand to include everyone relevant who was operating within the battlespace. Incomplete or unconnected networks can give the illusion of effectiveness, but are like finely crafted gears whose movement drives no other gears.
This insight allowed us to move closer to building a true network by connecting everyone who had a role — no matter how small, geographically dispersed, or organizationally diverse they might have been — in a successful counterterrorism operation. ”
When I returned to Digital Reasoning a few weeks ago, I saw striking parallels with what we were trying to accomplish with Big Data. In this particular instance, it truly takes a robust, connected network that is often highly distributed to make sense of the ever-growing volume, velocity and complexity of data. However, something more fundamental struck me – one of approach. In order to produce the best technology and become a learning organization requires 360 degrees of situational inputs and awareness. Bottomline, our various organizations must include everyone. Is marketing talking to the engineers? Is research and development talking to the end user? Is the president talking to the developers? Put another way, you have to remove the protected fiefdoms and silos for fusion to truly exist. At the end of the day in Afghanistan, the infantry Soldiers our forward were able to succeed, because they had a dedicated network of support – the same is true here at Digital Reasoning.
2. It Takes Integrity:
In a previous deployment to Iraq, I had the distinct honor of serving as Gen. Martin Dempsey’s Deputy for Public Affairs. Bar none, he has been my best mentor within the military. While visiting Bagram earlier this year, he and I had a few moments to speak. During our conversation he shared that while he could requisition anything for war, he could not requisition integrity.
I am especially proud of my team at Digital Reasoning and have always believed that integrity outweighs ability. You can teach anyone almost anything except how to choose the hard right over the easy wrong – that has to be inherent and natural.
One of the resounding criticisms of Army Public Affairs, especially in Afghanistan, is that we are often too slow. In a 2007 study entitled “The Taliban’s Information Warfare”, the author notes:
“The Taliban are often on international media with their messages within 60 minutes of a major event, considerably faster than ISAF can counter the Taliban’s messages, due to the requirement to investigate, confirm and gain approval through the chain of command before it can release a press statement to rebut or counter Taliban’s claims.” Ultimately, this is a matter of integrity. The Taliban simply are not held to nor do they hold themselves to any ethical standards of truthfulness. While, admittedly, Coalition Forces are slower with the news – we are first with the truth.
In a 2001 article for Fast Company, author Jim Collins wrote about exceptional companies and commented that “leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”
Ultimately, whether in business or war, you are asking yourself “Do I trust the person to my left and right?”. Trust simply cannot exist without integrity.
3. Don’t Confuse Activity with Productivity
While at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, I was involved in an experimental cell, which aimed to rebut, refute or confirm civilian casualties, which has become a leading concern for warfighters throughout Afghanistan. As it true of all organizations, people or businesses early in their life cycle, more attention is often given to the volume of work you are doing rather than the effect your work is actually having. Ultimately, it can become a chore of accounting, which is decoupled from optimization. For instance, you can pay more attention to how many press releases you are sending out to your target audience when you should be asking “Does my audience care about what I am saying and are they doing anything once they know what I have told them?”. Many organizations have adopted social media and will gladly tell you how many Twitter followers they have, how many likes they received on Facebook, and how many unique visitors they have had over the month. The next question ought to be “So what?”
In a 2009 Stanford University published its research findings regarding multitasks. After extensive research they concluded that “[p]eople who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention”. According to Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers, these “high-tech jugglers” were “suckers for irrelevancy” and easily distracted.
In order to yield the best possible results from our efforts, we must engage in focused activity, which is tied to a measurable, specific outcome.
4. You can’t Improve Anything Unless You Measure It
This lesson is closely associated with Lesson #3, because it also requires focus. The problem is not one, per se, of measurement. As an Army at war, we measure a lot, which is the underlying issue. We provide leadership with so many metrics that we dilute the impact of the most important metrics. In the words of the American cognitive scientist Herbert Simon “[w]hat information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” So then the question is no longer about if you should measure it is what should be measured. What are my key indicators for any stated goal or desired outcome?
So, at the end of the day, it is critical to first choose what should measure, and then measure it consistently. Peter Morville in his book Ambient Findability argues that what we find shapes what we become. By extension, what we look for to measure shapes the results.
While on combat patrols with an infantry company in Afghanistan, I spoke to the company commander and asked him how many insurgents he had killed. It seemed like a good question and, at first glance, appeared to be a useful metric. His answered surprised me – he didn’t keep count. To him, it was more useful to count other things such as the number of times local villagers informed Coalition Forces where improvised explosives were or the number of indirect fire attacks or the number of local elders that were willing to sit down and speak to him and his men. At the end of our conversation he remarked that we can’t simply kill our way out of this problem, we have to build trust with the Afghan people and demonstrate that what we can provide is far better than the insurgents.
5. Small Efforts Repeated Add Up to Great Results
Consistency is the hallmark of maturity. Regardless of circumstances, we must do the right thing every time, every day. I joined a mounted convoy to Mehtar Lam with an infantry platoon just a few days before many of them were to return to the United States. The platoon leader dismounted elements of his platoon to clear several danger zones of improvised explosive devices. Though no IEDs were found, he admitted it must be done every time. He said, “[y]ou cannot let the enemy dictate your next move. I will dismount every time, because the one time you don’t is the one time you may end up losing a Soldier due to complacency.”
“Success”, wrote Robert Collier,”is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” But, again, they must be the right efforts – efforts guided by good sense and good character.