Management Lessons from the War in Iraq

In this video we see Tim Harford talking about the similarities between the War in Iraq and the organization’s top-down management.

More specifically, he is addressing a turnaround which – at first sight – may seem as a simple replacement of the leader (in this case replacing the power of Rumsfeld by Petraeus). The most important element turns out to be about winning the cooperation of the local people.

What is more surprising for an organization of that size is the risk that people have taken in order to get it right. And once a new tactic worked it started to spread below the radar of Donald Rumsfeld. Eventually this resulted into the Counterinsurgency manual – a widely quoted manual (that I prefer to any other project management manual).

For the short version of this manual, it suffuses to look at the the great presentation on How to win the war in Al Anbar Province. The moral of the story is you have to wear a mustache.

It is very tempting to say ” If only they’d appointed Petraeus from the start…” but that is only half the story. Harford uses the example of H.R. McMaster to illustrate this point. The example is similar to the work of One Tribe at a Time by Jim Gant.

Good leaders are important, but the local experimentation – “the figuring out of what is actually working” – is equally important. Being more analytic and strategic will not help improve decision making. There has to be experimentation on the ground.