Learning from General Petraeus (Part 2)

It’s incredible that the U.S. army still had the same culture in 2003 that it had at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.  The soul searching that went on in its aftermath failed to address the fact that not all battles would fit the head-on conventional model that had existed in the leadership’s mindset since the end of the Second World War.

The Learning Organisation and Culture

In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002) John A. Nagl states that “the organisational culture of the U.S. army permitted no doubt Soupin the army’s leadership about the essence of the organisation: its core competence was defeating conventional armies in frontal combat.  The organisation never developed a consensus that change to its procedures and to its definition of its responsibilities was required by the nature of the revolutionary war it confronted in Vietnam.  An unshakable belief in the essence of the organisation precluded organisational learning and has continued to prevent the formation of a consensus on the “lessons of Vietnam” and on changes required to make the army more capable there and in future conflicts.”

How many organisations today are hamstrung with leaders who have mindsets that are not equipped to deal with faster business cycles, a seemingly endless need for change, an “always on”  consumer who wants an answer right now, and if he doesn’t get it, well you’ll “get it” on Twitter. A year ago I sat aghast when a business executive I had agreed to implement a social media strategy for told me that he only wanted to “tweet” twice a week, completely missing the “in the moment phenomenon” that is social media.  Can a leader of a “steady as she goes” utility adopt the frame of mind required to thrive at a fast moving and innovative telecommunications giant that may introduce a number of new products or services each month?

According to Nagl, due to adapting to the needs of its politicians for a flexible military in order to fight its imperial wars the “organisational culture of the British army allowed it to learn how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign during the Malayan emergency, whereas the organisational culture of the U.S. army prevented a similar organisational learning process during and after the Vietnam war.”  He goes on to say that “military organisations that are unable to learn can substantially damage the ability of their states to influence the international system; the United States suffered appreciably during and after the Vietnam war because the military was unable to learn how to counter insurgency.”

The domino-like effect of General Petraeus’s remarkable career progression in the final quarter of his military career saw a change in army doctrine, a change in the profile of the people holding senior military positions, and finally a more “flexible and adaptive” military that could be classed as a learning organisation.  Maybe the building of more flexible organisations and governments requires a similar sequence of events.

T-Shaped People

The need for soldiers to have skills outside of the pure military domain was recognised as far back as 1945 when Rhodes scholar, Brigadier General George Arthur Lincoln wrote “I’m beginning to think that what we need is a type of staff officer with at least three heads – one political, one economic, and one  military.”  This would resonate decades later when Petraeus reasoned that he needed “pentathlete” soldiers who could carry out offensive, defensive and stability operations simultaneously.

IED_1260This “three-headed pentathlete” soldier is similar to the T-shaped person that IDEO CEO Tim Brown introduced in Change By Design (2009).  A T-shaped person is someone who develops a particular expertise and skill-set and then adds to it by developing a number of other skills to complement the core skill.  The core skill forms the shaft of the T while the complementary skills form the top of the T.  Speaking to Warren Berger, author of Glimmer (2009) Brown says that  “to respond to the complexity of design problems today…we’ve found that if someone has an enthusiasm or curiosity about many different subjects and disciplines, then they can be more flexible, more empathetic, and more engaged with the world.”   Petraeus with his military background and academic curiosity fits the T-shaped mould whereas General William Westmoreland clearly did not.  Westmoreland was not known to be a reader, and when asked what it took to defeat an insurgency answered with one word: “Firepower.”

Customer Experience

It may seem trite to compare the interaction between these T-shaped soldiers and the communities they are interacting with during an insurgency with the customer experience strategies pursued by many of today’s top service providers, but let’s take a closer look.

Organisations can no longer rely on routinely fulfilling a set number of requests with a small number of stock responses read off a crib sheet. Good companies that provide great service have recognised that there’s been a shift from passive consumption to active participation.  They  know they can no longer treat people as passive consumers.

Zappos is a shoe company that place its confidence in Autonomy over Technique.  Zappos doesn’t monitor its customer service Military Customer Experienceemployees’ call times or require them to use scripts.  The reps handle calls the way they want to.  Their job is to serve the customer, and how they do that is up to them.  The turnover at Zappos is minimal and although it’s still a young company Zappos consistently ranks as one of the best companies for customer service in the US ahead of better known names like Cadillac, BMW, and Apple, and roughly equal to brands like Jaguar and Ritz Carlton.  What Zappos is doing is part of a small but growing move to restore some measure of individual freedom in jobs usually known for the lack of it.

Four Seasons Hotels are famous for their quality of service as much as for the luxury of their properties.  They are also recognised within the industry for having a staff-training system in which staff members learn how to anticipate the needs of their customers and build on the ideas of their colleagues.  Creating an experience culture requires going beyond the generic to design experiences perceived as uniquely tailored to each customer.  Unlike a manufactured product or a standardised service an experience comes to life when it feels personalised and customised.  The designers in head office set the stage for the experience, but they cannot anticipate every opportunity.  This is why the training programme at Four Seasons includes improvisation rather than drilling the staff with prepared scripts.

This echoes with one of Lieutenant Colonel Conrad Crane’s paradoxes of counterinsurgency.  At a conference to promote the U.S. Army’s official Field Service Manual 3-24 on Counter-Insurgency operations Crane asserted that “’most important decisions are not made by generals (this is a block-by-block war; lieutenants and even corporals must make ‘strategic’ decisions – hence the importance of this manual).”  This was supported by a speech made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the convention of the Association of the United States Army shortly after he assumed control at the Pentagon.  Gates, according to Fred Kaplan, made the point that the “future of the army lay not with gold-plated weapons or sweeping tank manoeuvres but rather with some junior officer who’d struck deals with Arab sheiks.”

This piece looked at how the culture of organisations impacts on their ability to implement change, the need for multi-disciplinary people to cope with the frantic demands of today’s society, and how there are parallels between the customer experience movement and a counterinsurgent’s interaction with the  public.  Part three will deal with the final four lessons.


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