A recent review of David Kilcullen’s upcoming book, “Counterinsurgency” included a section in which the author claims, “Rank is nothing: talent is everything.”
This brings me to a question that I’ve been bouncing around in my head for the past couple years, “is the military’s organizational structure/rank system outdated?”
The answer is absolutely, yes! Valdis Krebs explains,
When change was slow, and the future was pretty much like the present, hierarchical organizations were perfect structures for business and government. The world is no longer predictable, nor are solutions obvious. Old structures are no longer sufficient for new complex challenges.
Businesses have noticed the changes and are adapting. From GE’s boundaryless organization to Toyota’s amazingly flexible supply web, agility and adaptability are the mantra. Unfortunately most governments are not as quick and creative. Instead of the out-of-the-box thinking found increasingly in the business world, governments are busy shuffling boxes on the organization chart.
John Robb channeling John Boyd makes the case the war is essentially a contest in decision-making. This means in the case of the U.S. military, an outdated organizational structure is bad…very, very bad,
Let’s start with an assumption: War is a contest of minds. Therefore, the process of using minds — decision-making — is the core process upon which all warfare is built. Weapons, tactics, methods, systems, organizations, strategies, etc. are all derivative of this fundamental framework. Therefore, a narrow view of warfare is that it is a race to make decisions that optimize these derivatives within the restrictions imposed by access to resources and the other side’s attempt to do the same (friction).
A more expansive view is that all decision making processes exist within the abstract mental models we use to understand the (complex, uncertain, and complex) environment we live in. Unfortunately, these models are at best flawed approximations that only get more flawed over time. So, we may conclude that warfare is in large part an ability to use decision making, in particular cycles of analysis/synthesis, to create new/revised mental models that are closer approximations of the environment’s true nature.
Is the current organizational structure of the U.S. military, one consisting of rigid hierarchy and ever-increasing layers of bureaucracy the one best suited for making decisions in a dynamic, complex, globalized world? Not even close Robb explains,
Even under the most ideal conditions, its dubious whether the US military’s decision making loop (the sum total of the intellectual product of the entire military bureaucracy) can even closely approximate the requirements of the rapidly evolving global environment we currently find ourselves in. In short, we are falling behind ever more every day.
In the amount of time it takes information to travel up through all the levels of the chain of command, then back down, the situation has already changed. Each level of hierarchy makes it more likely that the organization will fail to adapt in time.
What we need is to go back to the drawing boards and emphasize decentralization, a promotion system that cares more about the quality of ideas rather than length of service, bottom-up solutions and direct lines of communication between the lowest and highest ranking officials (cut out the execs, middle-men, large staffs that filter out certain pieces of upsetting information before it hits the ears of the commanders).
So smart ones, I realize it is 10x easier to point out the problem then it is to come up with viable solutions. How does the U.S. military begin moving towards a more effective, relevant organizational structure? Is it a lost cause, is the bureaucracy too far gone to reverse direction? Maybe so, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.
***Update to Post 4/30/2010***
Here’s a Harvard Business Review post on 21st century leadership
The hierarchical model simply doesn’t work anymore. The craftsman-apprentice model has been replaced by learning organizations, filled with knowledge workers people that don’t respond to “top down” leadership. Seeking opportunities to lead, young people are unwilling to spend ten years waiting in line. Most important, people are searching for genuine satisfaction and meaning from their work, not just money. For example, Medtronic’s 38,000 employees are motivated by the company’s mission of “restoring people to full life and health.”
The challenges businesses face these days are too complex to be solved by individuals or even single organizations. Collaboration — within the organization and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors — is required to achieve lasting solutions. Leaders must foster this collaborative spirit, eliminating internal politics and focusing on internal cooperation. After becoming CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano transformed IBM’s long-standing bureaucracy into an “integrated global network,” shifting to “leading by values” and breaking down silos that kept people from collaborating.
The ultimate measure of effectiveness for leaders is the ability to sustain superior results over an extended period of time. Organizations filled with aligned, empowered and collaborative employees focused on serving customers will outperform hierarchical organizations every time. Top-down leaders may achieve near-term results, but only authentic leaders can galvanize the entire organization to sustain long-term performance.