Insights

Learning from conflict- six lessons for business leaders and consultants

I have just finished reading Max Hastings’ excellent book on the Falklands War. It is both deeply insightful about the conflict and directly applicable to complex change programmes. This is a leap too far, I hear you say, perhaps not as there were six lessons from the conflict that can directly apply to how modern programmes are managed.

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The prelude to the conflict can be chartered over the seventeen years before the war as the British and Argentine governments sought a diplomatic solution to the problem. It was a slow process, both sides taking very different stances. It resulted in stalemate, frustration and a military leadership in Buenos Aires committed to taking their ‘Malvinas’ by force. One observer commented that ‘we could have resolved the problem in ten minutes if we could have got both sides to see the problem from the same point of view’. He may have been right, but rarely are solutions quite so straight forward.

The British response was launched to high hopes and considerable muddle and inadequate resources. The fleet was put to sea in the hope that the sheer presence of a task force might not result in a ground war. Only once the fleet was at sea did people begin to think about what it might do when it arrived.

So what can businesses learn from this? A good deal.

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The military is a great example of a complex, functionally driven operating model where standardisation and simplification exists on a very grand scale.

The principles of good corporate and transformation governance are the same, though risks are seen through a different lens, but are nevertheless considered an important part of the overall equation.

Lesson 1: Build support by aligning the political and diplomatic strategies from the outset.

At the start of the conflict, the level of effort the British Government put into shoring up the political and diplomatic support for what would eventually take place was considerable in the international community. History has shown that the diplomatic missions that Britain conducted at the UN and in the EEC were masterclasses in getting the alignment and backing required for the conflict. A UN resolution supported Britain’s right to respond which was used continuously as a reference point in all the high-level discussions which took place. The Americans reflected afterwards how their role in trying to broker peace – as they were political allies of both the UK and Argentina – appeared amateurish in comparison. Indeed they believe that they alienated most people, most of the time and won few friends in the process. In the UK, the House was well prepared for what lay ahead. Like in business it emphasises the importance of stakeholder management, communication and buy-in as critical activities and the level of effort and importance of getting it right cannot be underestimated. Many business transformations fail as they do not do this well and make too many untested assumptions which, at a later date, prove to be vital to informing key decision points.

Lesson 2: Scenario planning has its limits, a holistic approach is also required.

No one had thought through about how to potentially fight a conflict 8000 miles away in the South Atlantic, in winter, and what would be needed to keep and sustain the level of force required. In business, a range of scenarios must always be considered and planned for, albeit they are shelved for a period. Before 1981, it was a constant battle between the treasury and the MOD to get the right resources in place. However, once the conflict started, the Treasury opened their cheque books and responded by providing whatever was needed. This does not, necessarily, translate through to business as an open book policy for driving change, but does suggest that once committed, the leadership of a business must have the resolve to see an action through and, financially, support it as needed.

Lesson 3: Make decisions on the back of clear and full information.

For the first 48 hours of the Falklands conflict the British Government were completely in the dark over what was happening. Freak weather conditions meant that the Government were unable to connect with their forces on the ground to find out what was happening. One minister observed ‘We did not even have enough information to resign’, such was the state of communications affairs, there were simply no alternatives. They relied on the newscasts from Bueno Aires to keep them up to date before deciding how to respond. Up to a point, all the government’s responses were hypothetical. Throughout the conflict the availability of up to date and relevant intelligence was a constant source of frustration for the commanders in the UK. Post the conflict, the Franks Report pointed to weaknesses in the intelligence network and the all too high reliance on signals intelligence rather than on the ground intelligence, relayed on real time.

In today’s businesses, things are not that different. The information age has brought with it a high degree of reliance on ‘Big Data’ but if the business is not well equipped to manage this data, then the value is lost. The dependency on data and information to support critical decisions is universal and there is a direct correlation between effective data management and performance. Manage it, look after it, get value from it.

Lesson 4: Good tactics, training in field craft and motivation will always outmanoeuvre technology.

The Argentine forces were well equipped and supplied with good weapons systems. However, the leadership of the troops and motivation in the field was lamentable and many did not know either why they were there or why the ‘Malvinas’ were so important. It was a conscript army. The British, in comparison, were the most highly trained and motivated force that had been dispatched from the UK since the Second World War. Technology was, as one observer noted, seen as a ‘magic pill that they – the Argentine forces – could take if only you could tell them what it is.’

Lesson 5: A simple, integrated governance model is vital for effective decision making.

The Argentine response to the Falkland crisis was under the control and direction of the Navy and the wider military ‘junta’. However, the Navy put to sea early, were spooked by the sinking of the General Belgrano and other events in the field and retreated to port and took a very inactive role in the campaign. The Air Force, in comparison, took a very active role and alarmed the UK military by the effectiveness and firepower at their disposal. However, their role did not appear to clearly align with the objectives of the Navy nor the Army. The Air Force sustained heavy losses, the Army too. Both, after considerable punishment in the field, lost confidence in the Navy command and refused to take orders from them as they were not ‘suffering’ in the same way. The UK response could not have been starker in its contrast. The Chiefs of Staff and the ‘War Cabinet’ was kept to a minimum of decision makers. The full UK cabinet was only fully briefed on operations on three occasions during the campaign and the House of Commons updated on a ‘need to know’ basis. Once up and running efficiently, decisions flowed quickly up and down the chain of command, though by modern comparisons it is pedestrian, given today’s ability to flash across the ether vast quantities of detailed information quickly. However, it has to be relevant, timely and informative on which decisions can be made.

Lesson 6: Learn and reflect from what went right and wrong in their relative proportions.

The most remarkable thing for the British campaign in the Falklands was the percentage of strategic and tactical decisions they got right. Yes, there were lessons from the negative outcomes, but these were more than outweighed by the positives. Superb planning, strong communication, clear lines of authority, a military command structure that limited the ‘back seat’ driving of Downing Street (i.e. which controlled the political ‘board of directors’) along with the quality of the British Forces leadership were the contributing factors. All too often, business initiatives do not have these qualities in play and subsequently focus time and effort on what went wrong (i.e. ships being unprepared for the southern oceans, at sea missile defence systems not working adequately, lack of helicopters as critical logistics tools). This can be helpful on a tactical level, but is rarely helpful on a strategic level. Leaders need to be carefully selected – as Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodwood and Brigadier Julian Thompson were in 1981- then empowered to do the task they are asked to do with limited interference at the most senior level. More senior commanders could have been deployed, and many argued should have been, given the enormity of the decisions hanging over these commanders in the field. They were given first-class support from the UK Strategic Command in Northwood who moved heaven and earth to get them what they needed to get the job done. However, resources were finite and it was a triumph for the UK planners that the objectives were achieved so efficiently. The areas that went well gave clear indicators for future investment to ensure that these attributes remain a strength – this became the basis for all UK Defence requirements for the next decade.

The military leaders were trusted to operate well within a defined set of boundaries. Likewise, organisations and leaders that trust each other are the most efficient. Trust is the glue that binds people together.  Knowing how each other are likely to and should behave when the pressure is on is key, whether it is military leaders, football team leaders or business leaders. Trust in organisations and the impact on performance will be the subject of a later blog…