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Learning from the Osama bin Laden mission

Written by on 25 May 2011

When the news came that bin Laden had been located 100 miles across the Pakistani border and a military operation had been authorised to kill or capture him, few were surprised. Although a great deal of controversy has surrounded the operation, in the subsequent briefing, few have questioned the determination the US has demonstrated in the prosecution of the case.

Telling pictures

The Whitehouse released the telling pictures of President Barack Obama and key senior figures within his administration, crowded around computer monitors to witness the operation unfold, with live video stream coming directly from cameras mounted on Navy Seal helmets.

Mission Command

Centralised control and micro management

The leaps in technology have now enabled operations such as this, which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, be viewed real time and controlled from many thousands of miles way. However, this leads us to question what the wider implications are for this kind of operational control.

Are the days of Mission Command and empowerment over?

The utility of Mission Command (the militaries implementation / decision making methodology) has been predicated on its ability to empower front line staff, allowing individuals to cease the moment and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Shortening the decision making process

Mission Command allows the organisation to shorten its decision making process, creating a number of quick decision loops that empower front line staff to act in adherence to a wider objective.

Technologies impact on Command and Control

The Osama bin Laden case clearly illustrates the desire to centralise control of sensitive operations, yet the ability for technology to create a centralised command structure can be witnessed with the huge growth in headquarter command structures and the growing commitment to networked enabled systems.

Mission Command - Technology

Wood from the trees

A key issue for the centralisation of decision-making is deciding what information is critical to the building of situational awareness. The technology and networks described previously in this blog have created an enormous amount of peripheral information that requires analysis and consideration. The soldier on the ground needs to consider the information as and when it presents itself, in the context in which the soldier finds himself.

Decision failure and optimised returns

The problematic issue of an individual acting in isolation of all the facts that otherwise may have determined another decision is an issue that reverberates throughout the argument for ‘decentralised versus centralised decision making’. The argument has continuously ebbed and flowed with the advancement of technology which has enabled individuals to act with a long screwdriver of control, digging down through the managerial structure to direct decisions and operational control of the individual act. The more information, the more options to consider and therefore, delays in the ‘decision to action cycle’ are inevitable.

Long-term implications for screwdriver management

Mission Command - Long Term ImplicationsAlthough the desire to control delicate front line operations is understandable, it also cuts out junior leaders discretion and creative inputs, which can have dangerous long term effects for the generation of high quality leadership. The danger of senior leaders dealing with tactical problems prevents them from think strategically and sends a clear message to junior leaders that they are not trusted enough to deal with key tactical problems.

Does centralisation improve decision-making?

The process of control being passed to senior personnel is not deliberately intended to deprive junior leaders. The perception is that senior individuals believe their greater experience and knowledge will enable them to make better decisions. The problem with this approach is that decisions are often evaluated as good or bad with the benefit of retrospective judgement. But, slowing the decision making process at the tactical level has a detrimental effect of operational outcomes.

The inconsistency throughout the reporting of events following the Osama bin Laden operation, clearly illustrates the confusion around what actually took place and how the events unfolded.

Resolving the problem

The problem of centralisation versus empowerment is mirrored in many of today’s business operations. Gaining clear, unambiguous management information is a continuous problem for those organisations that look to gather greater amounts of information. Management and junior leaders should be trusted to gather information, add value through interpretation and recommendation and then be empowered to own the problem and be given means to provide and implement the solution.

Top tip

Build your team, train them well and trust them to act. Empower them to get on with it.

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Comments (2)

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Chris Holtom wrote at 16:40pm on 13 July 2011

Ivan, agreed. However, its unlikley that decision makers at tactical levels have either a good understading of the context of what they see, nor the time and means to find that out. A central system should provide a dynamic information product (created from all data and information sources available) to the executive level of command in a form that is easily accessed, interpreted and assimilated. There is a lesson from the current US C2 system (DGCS-A) that somewhat obviously tells us that making available all information from all levels of command on a subject of interest to the Battalion or Brigade level is asking the least capable level of decision making with the least time to process huge quantities of 'noise' to find the relevant gems. It adds little value it appears and may actually be a constraint. Its much the same in large corporations where mission command is not well known and where operating outside standard work flows engenders is a crisis - every time. There is a large market for what you are suggesting, but also a large cultural gap to cross in the process

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Ivan wrote at 17:07pm on 13 July 2011

Hi Chris, thanks for your comments, yes my work has had to modify language for general consumption, however my research has identified many aspects that need consideration. In short I guess most of the conversation revolves around the selection of appropriate leadership that has strong shared values. These are reflected over time in organisational culture. The combination of leadership and shared cultural values builds trust that allows the utilisation of empowerment methodologies such as Mission Command to be effectively deployed in order to achieve organisational agility in complex and volatile environments. Your observation regarding information overload in this network-enabled world often prevents discretion and reduces the opportunity for success It comes back to risk acceptance, trust and faith in your people!

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