Control In Chaos – What I Learned In Afghanistan About Navigating A VUCA World

During the development of the “Leading in a VUCA world” series, we asked Brendan Smith to share some insights into the subject of mastering complexity, and how to forge order despite the chaos of these present times. In 2006, Brendan was deployed to Afghanistan, where as a Captain in the British Army he had to manage relationships between local civil society and the military forces. His experience on the ground, along with a decade of military training, have helped to shape his present approach to strategic problemsolving.

In 2006 I was deployed to the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, as a British officer working for NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. There I served back-to-back tours in Afghanistan as a Captain in the Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) unit – NATO’s Humanitarian Aid Division. Our job was to help foster civil and military cooperation and spearhead the Afghan National Development Strategy. We were 25 officers from 19 different nations, tasked with what seemed to be impossible – apart from nation-building initiatives, we were overseeing the responses to civil emergencies such as droughts, earthquakes and floods, we were providing medical care and humanitarian aid, we were rebuilding schools and critical infrastructure, we were coordinating the hajj for 2,5 million people, and we were protecting the international community that spanned across 16,000 non-profit organisations active in the country.

It was difficult, to say the least. Conditions were often very fluid, chaotic, and incredibly complex. There were multiple enemies, multiple audiences, and very blurred parameters between war and peace. Our team often had to face challenging circumstances, with scattered or scarce resources to execute our mandate. There were layers of agendas and narratives at play, in a country devastated by decades of oppression and war. The only way we could master this extraordinary complexity was to forge order in the midst of it – to plan for it, rather than react to it.

The business world today is not all too different. Change is constant, and situations are complex. To lead others in environments of such uncertainty is not easy. But it’s also possible, if we approach our problems with faith and step-to-step systematic thinking.

Here is what a war taught me when it comes to mastering complexity.

1) You will have enemies, so get a game plan

 

Problems are inevitable. We need to anticipate and address them systematically. The British Army has a systematic problem-solving methodology called a combat estimate, that helps guide thought and provides structure in stressful situations. Whenever faced with a problem or crisis we always worked through this process.

The estimate can be summed up in seven questions:

  1. What is the situation and how does it affect me?
  2. What have I been told to do, and why?
  3. What effects do I need to achieve and what direction must I give (to others) to develop my plan?
  4. Where can I best accomplish each action or effect?
  5. What resources do I need to accomplish each action or effect?
  6. When and where do the actions take place in relation to each other?
  7. What control measures do I need to impose?

Having a systematic way of going about solving problems helps us understand the problem, creates stability and ensures plans are thought through and structured. With a strategic approach in place, you can lead more confidently and proactively, knowing that your decisions were ordered and informed.

1) Take time to pause

Built into the combat estimate is a section called ‘pause’. It is mandated that before a plan can be completed or executed there needs to be a time to pause and reflect.

In the battle of Goose Green during the Falklands War in 1981, the parachute battalion were heavily outnumbered and pinned down. Colonel Herbert Jones famously took a pause during the battle to reassess the situation and change his plan. While he did this, he ordered his unit to have some tea. This pause is one of the key reasons that despite overwhelming odds and a seemly impossible situation they won an unlikely victory and changed the course of the war.

As leaders, we need to take time out to pause and think, even in the most difficult situations. It might seem counter-intuitive, especially when there is time pressure to make decisions and take actions. However, pausing is actually highly productive and may actually save you time and effort.

2) Keep the plans in pencil

And with that said, know that those plans will change… and that’s okay.

Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once said: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” His point was that you need to let the real life put those plans to the test. Things rarely go right the first time, so write your plans in pencil. Allow room to be creative and responsive to your unforeseen conditions – rather use your structures as riverbanks, not dams, to channel innovation and organisational agility. Be flexible, and you will be able to bend under the obstacles.

3) Your team is your best ally – invest in them

Military strategy was once fairly straightforward – identify the target, point and shoot. But the battlefield today is far more complex and disparate and a leader needs a multitude of players who bring unique perspectives and critical skills to the table. Each contribution is relevant and specialised, and informs a more comprehensive strategy that considers the long-term repercussions of our actions.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity,” said General George Patton. A key principle of the British Army is Mission Command. A leader issues an order and then entrusts their subordinates to carry it out without having to micromanage or check up on them.

The success of the Mission Command relationship is two-fold. First, it requires the leader to empower and equip those below them to carry out the order, and to trust them to do it. Secondly, it requires the subordinate to understand the mission, know what the leader wants to achieve, to take initiative, problem solve and accept the responsibility to get on with the job. Mission Command develops new leaders who are creative, confident and effective, so they in return are empowered to guide their teams through uncertain times in the future.

Likewise, business expertise today is no longer contained in C-suite bubbles, but through dynamic collaborations where everyone in the team is engaged in the process. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” As leaders we can neither afford to think we have all the answers, not be consumed by granular details. We  should invest in the people around us, trust them, and step back to see our organisations from new and diverse perspectives. Together we will have a much better chance of mastering the complexities that can otherwise consume us.

4) Tend to your organisation’s culture

 

We spent a lot of time in Afghani homes, around their tables, immersing ourselves in Afghani culture to understand the people we were protecting. We knew that if we wanted to serve them well, we would have to be able to sympathise with their worldview. This took time, and a level of transparency from both sides.

Similarly in our organisations, we have the opportunity to cultivate open and authentic cultures, where people are ‘seen’. An environment where we can be honest about our mistakes and willing to own our faults. Jesus was the ultimate example of humility, of course. As followers of Christ, we can take our cue from His life, adopting a lifestyle and leadership that is real and approachable.

5) Stick to your guns

When out on patrol and faced with a dynamic situation, we always had to know beforehand what the rules of engagement were. If shot at, were we allowed to fire back? If attacked, whom were we tasked to protect? These rules guided our responses intuitively, and sometimes made the difference between life and death.

In the same way, we should draw the lines for our organisations, and determine the moral boundaries of our own engagement. How will we do business, and with whom? What are our non-negotiables when it comes to finances, partnerships, or legal compliance? In which areas will we not compromise even in the heat of the moment? Compromise is so easy and tempting, but if we repeatedly lead with moral ambiguity, we will muddle our vision and make our lives unnecessarily complicated.

6) There is always a way forward

And lastly, remember – no matter how sticky the situation may seem, there is always a solution. God always provides a way out, a back door, and a way to make the crooked path straight. Our job as leaders is to follow His lead, and let Him guide us to innovative and creative solutions that the world has not yet seen.

Every business leader today has their own uncharted landscapes to navigate. But we can choose the path we want to walk on it. Either we can react to this complexity and try to manage it, or we can learn to harness God’s creativity for unbelievable outcomes. The choice is ours – and so is the opportunity.

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Brendan Smith