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5 Ways to Be More Adaptive in the 21st Century

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal explains how to be fast--and smart--about the way that you act.
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In 2003, Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command of the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an association of elite forces including the Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Delta Force. His mission: to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

JSOC had superior technology and resources compared to al-Qaida, but “by the summer of 2004, we were also losing,” said McChrystal during a presentation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. That's because they were using an outdated organizational structure, one that prized efficiency, despite living in a time that favors adaptability.

For decades, the principles of efficiency were taught in business schools, and businesses thrived because of it, McChrystal said. But with more information being shared at greater speeds, even the most efficient organization these days can’t keep up.

The secret to success is adaptability, he said. You've got to be smarter--and faster--about the way you react, especially in today's world. With that in mind, here are five ways to get your team focused. 

Let go of “the right way.”

McChrystal still marvels at JSOC’s old organizational hierarchy as a model of order, with groups operating in silos and a chain of command to communicate. The old way “assumed that an organization had adequate time for information to flow through those pathways," but took too long. 

Al-Qaida’s operations in Iraq, on the other hand, were a loose network of associations built on personal relationships. They were structured organically, which could be less efficient, but made them more adaptive.

McChrystal decided to meld both approaches within his team: “We tried to take the best of what we do, put it together with extreme adaptability, and change the way we thought and operated to make it work.”

Beware predictive hubris.

Despite having more intelligence, JSOC couldn't anticipate events effectively. Having more data may feel empowering, but “[it] does not equal more predictability,” McChrystal said. He cites a classic decision-making study in which horse racing experts were given information to predict the outcome of a race, and asked their level of confidence in their prediction. For a second race, the experts received double the amount of information. With more information, accuracy didn’t improve at all, but the experts’ confidence in their predictions was much higher.

The potential for predictive failure in today’s environment is even greater, McChrystal said, because not only do we have exponentially more data that can give us false confidence, but that data can lead a situation to shift quickly.

The Arab Spring is one such example. “Exponentially, that which we are trying to measure and predict is more complex,” he said. “The danger is to take all this information, to watch in Tahrir Square and say, ‘we know what’s happening in Egypt.’”

Strive for a shared consciousness.

JSOC had the most elite small teams--the kinds of teams in which every member has the same information and a synchronized sense of purpose--in the form of Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Delta Force.

When McChrystal took over command of JSOC, he held a daily update among 50 or so top leaders in the organization. “By the time I gave up command, it was more than 7,000. We did it every day,” he said, noting the 90-minute update he gave to essentially the whole command in order to get everyone on the same page. Of course, your business should take its own approach, but the bottom line is this: “you need a robust communication form for everybody to develop a shared consciousness,” he said.

Make it personal.

Not only does the larger group need to share information, it also needs to create broad emotional ties across the organization, he said. “You’ve got to be emotionally tied, because people act on emotion.”

McChrystal began by moving everyone involved with a single operation to the same base location. So surveillance pilots typically were stationed with aviation personnel and on-the-ground operators ate in the same mess hall.

“I wanted the pilot who’s going to fly that very sensitive reconnaissance mission during the attack to run into the operators who had been on the mission,” he said. “If one of them had screwed it up, I wanted them to see each other eyeball to eyeball.”

He also began embedding Navy SEALS into Delta Force teams, and vice-versa--a move some considered a sacrilege. “But it worked." 

Empower “doers” to think.

The old organizational model for the Army, as well as for business organizations, was to have the decision-makers at the top of the hierarchy and the doers at the bottom, taking orders from the thinkers. But this approach can’t work in a fast-changing world, McChrystal said, especially one where it’s important not just to get things right but to get them right quickly to win. 

The key for his command, he said, was to “change the thinkers into doers and the doers into thinkers, and everybody became both. Now we could get the information to everybody, and more people could control what they did, which allowed us to do what we call empowered execution.”

This story was originally published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and has been republished with permission. Follow them @StanfordBiz.

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