The book begins with a scene from a Hollywood polit-thriller: Analysts and operatives are gathering to coordinate an attack, chatting casually about friends and family. As they gear up, the analysts wish the them luck. Only when the operatives drive their explosives-laden car into a busy marketplace, do we realize: We have just seen a team of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
General Stanley McChrystal, ex-Commander in Chief of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq, drives home a simple but unavoidable point in this book: The days of command and control are over. In a highly complex operating environment, with rapidly changing contingencies, today’s organizations cannot wait for a C-level green light, nor can the C-level possibly have any insight to all operational decisions. This book tracks General McChrystal’s efforts to share information and decentralize execution across all chains of command under him – including organizations such as the CIA and all branches of the US military. Lives depended on it; waiting to wake a commander to get their approval across several time zones cost not only opportunities but lives. Interestingly, most other businesses and organizations have not followed suit.
The book is surprisingly scholarly and reviews the history of modern hierarchies, from the rise of Taylorism in industrial practices in the 19th century, signaling the definite demise of guilded craftsmen, to the complexities of the modern world. The latter have since been notably encapsulated in the ungainly acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), describing most of the situations JSCO encountered in urban environments. The free flow of information has also led to some highly publicized wiki-leaks that nearly cost him his job; still, General McChrystal argues, every analyst and operator must have access to the same levels of information in order to make the best possible decisions. Even 23-year-old analysts are given the power to execute on information and direct field operations on the basis of unfolding events. In McChrystal’s eyes, this was the only way to combat a very small but agile and lethal terror network; large-scale military operations / hierarchical chains of command are simply inadequate to the job.
The books does not cover much on the applications needed to decentralize execution and share knowledge, but does offer a very credible angle on “where trust meets purpose” in organizations – a very thought-provoking read.