#ASTD2014 session report: Stan McChrystal


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The second keynote. This means that all of us were together — 9.000 people is a lot! This conference is really huge. But on to the keynote.  Stan McChrystal is a former 4 star general. He gave a great presentation. He applies the lessons he learned in the army to his current role as a consultant, and in this keynote he shared them with us.

He started out with some stories that underline the importance of adaptivity. With some examples he made the following points:

  1. Technology has increased and not reduced complexity
  2. Small young organizations learn and adept quickly
  3. The bigger the organization the slower the learning and change will be
  4. There will be a point where the adaptivity rate of an organization falls below the speed of change
  5. This will result in the Adaptability gap

When your organization falls behind like that, you have a problem that you can solve through developing ‘Organic adaptability’. He compared it with a flock of starlings. Instead of being all separate people (or separate organizational entities), you have to operate as one. He showed a video of the starling, I have added one as well, simply because it is so beautiful to watch. 

He gave an example from his own experience. The US formed JSOC (which he was leading) after a failed raid in Iran to free US hostages. It consists of small effective teams that can do military interventions anywhere. And they were effective for example, with Bin Laden. But at another time, the US was hunting for another man in Afghanistan and they could not capture him. He was a Taliban leader that would come in on a motorcycle, visit his men and then would disappear again. The US army was just too slow to catch him. At a meeting in Washington it appeared there were a dozen or so departments hunting the same man. Everyone of them had a part of the information or capabilities needed to catch him, but none of them could do it alone. They completely rearranged everything so they would work as one. They caught the Taliban leader within 6 months. It appeared that JSOC had suffered from an adaptability gap.  They were not able to adapt fast enough to the changing world (finding a single man instead of fighting an army).  So they formed a team of teams, a flock of Starlings, a team with ‘shared consciousness’ as he calls it. There is a second crucial term he uses: ‘Empowered execution’. With all their rearrangements it turned out that they were very often still too slow in their response. It turned out he was the bottle neck. Teams had to get his permission to take action. The first thing was that they hesitated to wake him up at night in order to get permission and the process took too much time anyway. He decided to give the team the power to make those decisions by themselves, he empowered them. He still remained responsible, but he trusted them enough to leave it to them. This was a big game changer for them.

All in all a great presentation and some interesting lessons. His topic is the main topic of the conference: How to adapt with your organization to the ever-growing speed of change in the world.

 

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