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Understand the Bad, Leverage It for Good: What Gen. McChrystal Learned from Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda in Iraq took advantage of information age innovation to take hold and subvert counter-terrorism measures. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal's team had to adapt in order to contain this new enemy.

Stanley McChrystal:  Al Qaeda in Iraq really intersected with the rise in the information age and so suddenly they were able to leverage video, they were able to leverage cell phones, the Internet so that they could create an effect of one part of Iraq and suddenly get value from that action in a place like Mosul almost instantaneously.  So what it allowed them to do with this networked approach almost, franchised like approach, was to be very agile, very lethal and constantly adapting. And so we found that against that foe our traditional efficiency, as good as it was, wasn't enough. 

We changed our structure to create from a team to a true team of teams, not a single team commanded up by a hierarchical reader, but a team of teams that were networked together that had an organic relationship underpinned by something we called shared consciousness, which is this shared contextual understanding of everything that's happening and everything we're trying to do and then that empowers people, small teams and individuals at lower levels, to make decisions on their own.  Because we found that in today's environment where things are so much faster and interconnected, you have to make decisions close to the point of action because that's where people understand what's happening and that's where they can operate fast enough to be relevant.

When we first came into this situation in Iraq we wondered whether it was unique to war or unique to that particular situation?  What we found is it wasn't really a cause of Al Qaeda in Iraq being special, they were focused and they were dedicated and they were pretty good, but in reality it was the environment which we run into.  And it was the two factors, it was this vastly increased speed, physical speed but more than that the speed of digits and information moving, and also the interconnectedness of everything.  And what that produced was a situation which complexity ruled the day.  And what I mean by complexity, the basic quality here is not that it's complicated, that's different.  It's complex to the point where things are not predictable.  And when things are not predictable and uncertainty rules the day adaptability becomes the coin of the realm.

And so as we studied this, from that was our experience, we went to businesses is we found the speed and interconnectedness and the resulting complexity are exactly what businesses and other organizations face today.  Those 19th and 20th century organizations that look good on organization charts, that have silos, they have set processes and checklists are fine to create organization in a predictable environment.  And they can be very, very efficient but they're far too ponderous and far too slow and far too able to agilely change with constantly shifting seas in today's environment.  And so today's businesses and organizations that don't make this kind of shift find themselves vulnerable to those who automatically have. 

Al Qaeda in Iraq took advantage of information age innovation to take hold and subvert counter-terrorism measures. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal's team had to adapt in order to contain this new enemy. In this Big Think Edge preview clip, McChrystal explains how a strategy hinged upon shared consciousness can help teams and teams of teams accomplish important goals.

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