How A Conference Call Changed Modern Warfare

How many people can you have on a conference call before it becomes completely useless? Six? Eight? A dozen?

How about thousands – on a call that apparently helped to change the shape of modern warfare?

In his new book Team Of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal explains how a giant-sized daily videoconference became a crucial weapon for his US Task Force in Iraq.

“Our standing guidance was ‘Share information until you are afraid it’s illegal’,” he says. “When people think of cutting-edge military hardware, they usually picture weaponry, not a bulked-up version of Skype, but that was our main technological hurdle and point of investment for several months…

“Technically it was complex, financially it was expensive, but we were trying to build a culture of sharing: any member of the Task Force, and any of the partners we invited, could eventually dial in securely from their laptops and listen through their headphones…

“Attendance grew as the quality of the information and interaction grew. Eventually we had seven thousand people attending almost nightly for up to two hours. To some management theorists, that sounds like a nightmare of inefficiency, but the information that was shared was so rich, so timely, and so pertinent to the fight, no one wanted to miss it.”

I’m not going to start recommending massive conference calls to my clients – to be honest this sounds like more of a broadcast than a conference – but there are some exciting and interesting lessons in this book about what could be possible. For the boss of any large organisation which fears being Uberized, this book is a must-read.

Because that giant conference call was part of a much bigger strategy. McChrystal and his Task Force were learning to engage in a new kind of war, fighting a networked enemy. There were no tidy battle lines in Iraq: old-fashioned command-and-control was no longer fit for purpose.

He argues that the situation had crossed from complicated to complex, requiring a new kind of organisation to respond.

Complicated vs complex? In a complicated system, prediction may be difficult, but it is possible (maybe with the aid of “big data”). In a complex situation, by contrast, there are simply too many moving parts: effects are non-linear and unpredictable.

The Task Force was caught up in an “emergent, wayward swirl” which was not just marginally different from previous conflicts, but “vastly faster and more interdependent”.

So McChrystal and his officers set about creating their “Team Of Teams” – and that massive conference call because a crucial piece of the jigsaw. It was essential because relevant, up-to-date information from that daily call empowered the soldiers on the ground.

Armed with real knowledge, they could confidently make decisions that had previously been reserved to the top brass – quickly enough to stay ahead of the enemy.

And of course, that changed McChrystal’s role as leader – which he argues is part of a wider shift in leadership. He urges a move from “chess master” to “gardener”.

He says: “Creating and leading a truly adaptive organization requires building, leading and maintaining a culture that is flexible but also durable… this is a culture that can be planted and, if maintained, can flourish. It just requires a gardener: a human, and sometimes all-too-human, leader displaying the willingness to accept great responsibility remains central to making an ecosystem viable.”

Lots to think about, lots to apply – and, as more and more organisations find themselves whirling in complexity, lots thats relevant way beyond any military context.

If you’ve been worrying about whether your lumbering old organisation could ever change – well, here’s a real-life story of one that did, under as much pressure as could be imagined.

And if you’re in a smaller group trying to persuade colleagues to go for a distributed decision-making model, the ripping yarns here make a compelling, hard-shelled case.

I can hear myself telling these stories in organisational change projects for years to come!

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