USC Price School of Public Policy

CREATE talk draws on military lessons to build adaptable organizations

August 26, 2016

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Chris Fussell discusses his New York Times bestseller “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.” (Photo by Ruben Shaverdyan) More photos available on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

Author and former military officer Chris Fussell presented on the process for building adaptable organizations, drawing lessons from how the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force’s transformed to overcome the changing landscape of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. The discussion was part of a Distinguished Speaker Series event for the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) on Aug. 2.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, USC CREATE is jointly housed within the Price School of Public Policy and the Viterbi School of Engineering.

Fussell, who spent 15 years on U.S. Navy SEAL teams, co-authored the 2015 New York Times bestseller Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World with retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He served as Aide-de-Camp to McChrystal during his final year of commanding JSOC, witnessing firsthand the special operations community’s transformation into an agile network.

McChrystal recognized that military strategy against al Qaeda was applying old rules to classify and understand the structure of terrorist networks in Iraq in order to predict their actions, when the enemy was a constantly changing organic network.

“You’re connecting all these dots, and you’re trying to force this thing to become something you can understand and engage,” Fussell said. “What we didn’t realize was there was no structure. The dots were not there to be connected.”

Adjusting course based on new information

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Fussell with USC Price Safe Communities Institute Director Frank Quiambao (hoto by Ruben Shaverdyan)

On the ground, it seemed like the special-ops teams were having great success. They were told to capture or take out a target, and they usually completed the mission. Ultimately, leadership needed to take a step back and determine if it was adding up to any sense of victory.

Because of the terrorist network’s unpredictability, it was good at adapting. Attacking one spot just made it change faster. Removing the top commander from a chart could even make a group stronger. By the time they got that person, he too often was no longer relevant.

“We consider ourselves the bullet,” Fussell said of special-ops teams. “I don’t really care what the gun looks like. Point it in the right direction, pull the trigger and we will make sure the target gets taken care of. Now suddenly we had to appreciate that we’re the whole weapons system, and that had to start with senior leadership saying it’s not enough to just be the bullet anymore.”

The new model was based on decentralizing decision-making authority, through a concept McChrystal called empowered execution. This required restructuring from the ground up, with transparent information sharing. Rather than special-ops teams working independently, a physical command center was created where each team could interact with every other team.

In a fast-moving world with the free flow of information, a similar decentralized approach to management could apply across any industry to businesses, nonprofits and other organizations.

Fussell said: “I believe industry, government and every space you can imagine has to start having similar types of conversations.”