Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 18, 2015

“Such unpredictability has happened not in spite of technological progress, but because of it.”

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Christopher Bellavita on May 18, 2015

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 in Stanley McChrystal, et al.’s new book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.  The book is well worth reading if you’re interested in exploring ways of working and leading within a complex environment – like homeland security. 

“The year is 1882. Halfway around the world from [Frederick] Taylor and his factories, the Ottoman governor of Damascus has decided to implement major educational reforms. Tarek, a poor, pious Muslim who resents the reforms, goes down to the town square, gets on a soapbox, and begins to agitate against the government.

“Do the authorities need to worry about him? Perhaps. In all likelihood, the Ottoman regime knows almost nothing about him personally because he is not well connected or aligned with any of their institutional enemies. But even without knowledge about Tarek as an individual, the regime can anticipate that the number of people who might turn out to see him preach is small— only people who are within daily communication and traveling radius of his soapbox will be aware of his protest. Moreover, the town square lies within government control. If things get out of hand, they can shut down the operation almost instantly. Maybe they will arrest him, or maybe they will let him say his piece and leave. Either way, they can predict with some accuracy that he does not represent a threat to the state.

“Fast-forward to 2010 and Tarek is standing on the street in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He is shouting at the top of his lungs about local police corruption. With access to his data trail, twenty-first-century Tunisian authorities may know a lot about Tarek: where he shops, what he likes to buy, what Web sites he visits at the Internet café, who his Facebook friends are, what kind of religious and political beliefs he holds. With simple study and a basic computer, they can come to far more refined conclusions about him than the Ottoman governor in 1882 could have. But in 2010 the range of outcomes that this Tarek can generate is far greater than his government can anticipate, because he lives in a vastly more complex world.

“The first Tarek is fictional. The second is Tunisian fruit vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, and when he douses himself with gasoline and self-immolates, events spiral out of control at breakneck speed: A crowd protests his death, and his cousin records the scene on his iPhone. Videos appear on YouTube within two days, along with a picture of Tarek, aflame and dying. More protests erupt. Videos of those protests wind up on Facebook. Arabs everywhere see their Tunisian brethren in the streets. Not only Al Jazeera, but The New York Times and The Guardian make trips to the small town of Sidi Bouzid. Within three months, the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak is brought to an end some 1,400 miles away in Cairo, Muammar Gaddafi starts losing control of Libya after four decades in power, and Syria begins its descent into intractable civil war.

“Despite having more data about Arab societies— and about individuals like Tarek— than at any time in history, no government, search engine, or social media platform foresaw Tarek’s self-immolation or the impact it would have.

“The two Tareks illustrate the contradiction between the tremendous technological progress witnessed during the past century, and our seemingly diminished ability to know what will happen next. Though we know far more about everything in it, the world has in many respects become less predictable. Such unpredictability has happened not in spite of technological progress, but because of it. The technological developments of recent decades are of a fundamentally different variety from those of Taylor’s era. While we might think that our increased ability to track, measure, and communicate with people like Tarek would improve our precise “clockwork universe” management, the reality is the opposite: these changes produce a radically different climate— one of unpredictable complexity— that stymies organizations based on Taylorist efficiency.

“It is because of these changes that the [US military’s Joint Special Operations] Task Force’s “awesome machine,” excellent by all twentieth-century metrics, was failing. Understanding specifically what had changed, why it reduced predictability, and how that impacted management would prove critical to solving our problem. And we weren’t alone. In our later analyses, we found that phenomena we witnessed on the ground in Iraq had been observed in a wide variety of domains, from agronomy to economics.”


CHAPTER 1: Sons of Proteus
CHAPTER 2: Clockwork
CHAPTER 3: From Complicated to Complex
CHAPTER 4: Doing the Right Thing

CHAPTER 5: From Command to Team
CHAPTER 6: Team of Teams

CHAPTER 7: Seeing the System
CHAPTER 8: Brains Out of the Footlocker
CHAPTER 9: Beating the Prisoner’s Dilemma

CHAPTER 10: Hands Off
CHAPTER 11: Leading Like a Gardener

CHAPTER 12: Symmetries


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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 19, 2015 @ 11:45 am

Great post! Thanks Chris! Yes IMO technology may well destroy humanity. It is the cliff we human lemmings jst have to rush over!

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 19, 2015 @ 11:46 am

Another book following in the steps of Mary Parker Follette.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

May 20, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

Based on what I know of McChrystal, I honestly kinda like and respect the man (at least compared to many of his brethren) – and I definitely don’t think Obama should’ve accepted his resignation. But then, I grew up in the heart of Delta/Special Forces country (back when you could still drive across it) – and have members in my family, so I’m somewhat predisposed…

This does not, however, keep me from thinking that there’s something truly unseemly about using the abominable failure that is our invasion of and war on much of the Middle East at this point as a lesson in 21st century leadership styles, especially when it’s underlying if unspoken assertion is that if only we’d done it in this new and better way, we would’ve been more successful, etc. That really does add entirely new meaning to the phrase “not being able to see the forest for the trees,” IMHO.

It also doesn’t keep me from getting that there are some basic things about human beings that really are quite timeless in their predictability, and that should require no technology whatsoever to understand – except apparently to those in the military/homeland security industrial complex. Little things like how people in other countries and cultures really don’t like being invaded and occupied, murdered and tortured, their country and their resources effectively stolen or otherwise ransacked and the bulk of the profits taken elsewhere, or their official political leaders effectively chosen and installed for them – all under the laughably false guise of liberating them all immediately come to mind. Nor do they like countries that support other countries in doing any of the above either (ie., Israel). They also don’t at all seem to care very much for how the west has either wholly installed or effectively propped up or otherwise massively supported dictator after dictator, as long as they’re willing to let western multi-nationals rip off the country’s resources, and adopt the neoliberal economic reforms the U.S. in particular has been sparing no expense in trying to shove down the entire world’s throats, no matter how toxic they’ve very consistently proven to be to the vast majority of citizens and the overall economy of pretty much every country they’ve been implemented. This was what the Arab spring was all about – and just because the exact moment or place or person in time could not be predicted with pin point precision (and the mind that thinks that it ever could be really does suffer from some fairly self-aggrandizing delusions), does not make the inevitability of the larger eventual rebellion and resistance any less certain, especially to those with an appropriate knowledge base – which military/HS people generally somehow almost never seem to possess.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

May 20, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

To which I would only add that, when you then basically destroy the physical, social, political and economic fabric of a country or countries, what will invariably float to the top of the chaos are the psychopaths. And when you combine psychopathic personalities with a truly just cause, what you have is an especially deadly, toxic phenomenon that has little problem justifying its natural tendencies towards violence, and that thanks again primarily to the west, has a great deal of modern technology at its disposal to act that out.

So in sum, the only thing I really want to hear from McChrystal, or the very conservative, white male-dominated political and economic class that unleashed him and the U.S. military, is the world’s largest, loudest apology for having broken Iraq, probably Afghanistan, and possibly effectively most of the middle east about as badly as we could’ve. And then I’d like to hear what we’re going to finally do about it – because the current more-of-the-same discussion happening 24/7 on cable news station after cable news station by one self-appointed HS/terrorism “expert” after another is hardly what we need to continue doing.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 20, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

WOW! Thanks Vicki for the articulate posts! I always liked Colin Powell’s aphorism YOU BREAK IT AND ITS YOURS!

Comment by Erik

May 27, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

I speak under correction, but I think the story about lemmings may be exaggerated. I certainly grant that the metaphor is well-established, though.


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