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.”
• PART I • THE PROTEUS PROBLEM
CHAPTER 1: Sons of Proteus
CHAPTER 2: Clockwork
CHAPTER 3: From Complicated to Complex
CHAPTER 4: Doing the Right Thing
• PART II • FROM MANY, ONE
CHAPTER 5: From Command to Team
CHAPTER 6: Team of Teams
• PART III • SHARING
CHAPTER 7: Seeing the System
CHAPTER 8: Brains Out of the Footlocker
CHAPTER 9: Beating the Prisoner’s Dilemma
• PART IV • LETTING GO
CHAPTER 10: Hands Off
CHAPTER 11: Leading Like a Gardener
• PART V • LOOKING AHEAD
CHAPTER 12: Symmetries