I had the good fortune last Thursday of being able to attend a Center for International Relations Policy (CIRP) speaker event featuring former US Central Command (USCENTCOM) 4-star General David Petraeus. Relevant to the articles that we read, "Do You Have the Right Leaders for Growth Strategy" by Herrmann et al. and "Competing through Organizational Agility" by Sull, there are practical lessons about fostering leadership and maintaining strategic and operational agility to be gleaned from the strategy that Petraeus implemented to combat insurgency.
As he spoke, he alluded to Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, for many of the lessons he had learned in Iraq and Afghanistan about the nature of delivering effective counterterrorism operations. Specifically, the foreward states that "A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations...Achieving this balance is not easy. It requires leaders at all levels to adjust their approach constantly." Juxtaposed against Sull's assertion that "sometimes, the key is simply staying in the game until a big chance emerges," Petraeus' thoughts on injecting the "big ideas" necessary for successful nation-building draw strong comparisons to the surge strategy. In this case, Petraeus refers to the "application of national power in the political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure fields and disciplines" in the Manual as the tools that are eventually needed to "solve" a problem on the order of Iraq. A military "surge" alone, it is implied, would not have been enough to accomplish US objectives in the short and long term.
The theme of needing the right organizational flexibility to accomodate additional strategy modes is emphasized heavily by Petraeus and his co-authors. For the most part, Petraeus says, the emphasis is on learning and cultivating those who learn quickly. The Army and Marine Corps are referred to as "learning organizations" because they "encourage Soldiers and Marines to pay attention to the rapidly changing situations that characterize COIN (COunterINsurgency) operations." The field manual continues to mention that "current tactics, techniques, and procedures sometimes do not achieve the desired results," so "to win, successful leaders engage in a directed search consensus for better ways to defeat the enemy."
Perhaps this is a reflection on Petraeus' own experience--the idea of combining nation-building techniques with "kinetic" operations (those that use force) is certainly a different way to engage an opponent in an environment where the stakes are the hearts and minds of a people. One of the highlights of Petraeus' time in northern Iraq was his time in Mosul in which he mobilized a non-kinetic (non-force) operation with 20,000 soldiers. He went against the conventional theory of being an occupier and provided rebuilding services to the Iraqis. Notably, his replacement did not continue the same operations and fell into the same trap that nations who lose counterinsurgency operations fall in: they could not "overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war against insurgents," as the Manual suggests winners do. The provincial police collapsed later that year due to insurgency operations and the city had to be retaken. It's a good analogue to Herremann et al. when they say that "certain competencies are more important to growth strategy than others" because the skillset necessary to sustain counterinsurgency progress.
Finally, promoting the correct operational environment is critical to Petraeus. Take for example this quote from Sull: "An organization's ability to exploit both revenue-enhancing and cost-cutting opportunities within its core business more quickly, effectively, and consistently than rivals do is the source of operational ability."
Petraeus: "In COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly--the better learning organization--usually wins." "Learning organizations defeat insurgencies; bureaucratic hierarchies do not."
Sound familiar? It should. It is the cognizant use of specific advantages for the purpose of accomplishing an objective. You know, that strategy stuff.
Petraeus states that there are underlying foundations to successful adoption of COIN techniques, just as Sull indicates that it is necessary to "[put] in place systems to gather and share the information required to spot opportunities and building processes to translate corporate priorities into focused action." The challenge appears to be the same for Sull and Petraeus: in a state of nature wherein there are challenges to then norm-- in Petraeus' case "traditional lessons-learned systems" (i.e. those that promote immediate, post-action learning), there must be a "focus on culture" according to Sull, in order to overcome tactical resistance by rivals.
As a parting thought, imagine you are the new CEO of RIM. The Blackberry is on its way out, the iPhone and Android are on their way up, and there seem to be dwindling options. How do you leverage lessons from Sull, Herremann et al., and Petraeus in order to tactically bring your company back to life? How do ensure that you "stay in the game" long enough to have another chance?