José Luis Álvarez. Director. Corporate Government Centre. Instituto de Empresa
27 October 2005
Action theory can have a big impact on how different organisations operate, including the US Marines. Because of its flexibility, the Marine Corps has proven to be the US army unit best suited to responding to the insurgent threat in Baghdad. It is also an example of action theory at its best.
Some time ago, a European academic association of business management awarded its highest distinction to a very influential specialist in Action Theory: Jim March. In his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, March illustrated the positive impact that theories--including some that may appear overly academic, such as his own--had had on the operations of public and private organisations.
March gave several examples of companies that had followed recommendations based on the most sophisticated academic theories. In one case, he read several paragraphs of the texts used to teach strategy and structure to the executives of an organisation specialized in operating in highly competitive and risk-filled environments. He then challenged us to identify the company. What he read described how intense competition within the organisation caused great friction or resistance to action among employees.
Risk and luck also influenced the relation between cause and effect in the sector in question, in large part because the information usually available was incomplete, imprecise and even contradictory. Other characteristics included fluency or 'liquidity', since the outcome of following these recommendations was heavily influenced by shifting combinations of circumstances, problems and solutions. Furthermore, the sector was intrinsically chaotic because strategies, policies and instructions were poorly communicated and, thus often misinterpreted. And finally, the situation was complicated by the large number of actors (units and people), each making decisions.
Jazz Bands and Basketball
Because of these characteristics and influences, the organisation maintained its standards. It probably considered itself not so much a hierarchical structure as a basketball team, with a series of well-learnt basic moves and coordination routines. Each member of the team enjoyed a huge amount of independence. The texts March read said the organisation encouraged its executives to think of its basic units as jazz bands in which the players are free to improvise on a series of common themes and rhythms. In other words, they were not to escape from the chaos and confusion, but rather to build upon it when taking action. What was the organisation in question?
It was the US Marines--not exactly the sort of organisation one would expect to see modelling itself on the most advanced action theories. And definitely not an organisation that thinks of itself as a jazz band. Not long ago, I spent a few afternoons looking over the material that is considered required reading for officer candidates. I can assure you these texts are based on the most advanced academic theories.
The bibliographical references to chaos theory, for example, were excellent. I have chosen three passages from the army handbook because of the degree to which they contravene conventional wisdom.
Leadership must be intuitive (the Napoleonic coup d'oeil) rather than logical, linear and sequential. It must be decentralised, informed and flexible. Leadership should also provide subordinates with an idea of what needs to be done, while allowing them the freedom to choose the most suitable strategies and tactics for achieving those goals. Since no strategy withstands the first encounter with competition—those in charge of the organisation must learn to adapt and to improvise.
In the process of drawing up tactics, speed and agility take precedence over precision and accuracy—which are qualities rarely achieved. The aim is to confuse the adversary as much as possible, thus heightening its sense of discord, uncertainty, disorder and turbulence.
Flexibility; An Arm Against Adversaries
The division of labour and the ability to make rapid decisions on the battle front are key to creating this confusion. Consequently, hierarchical structures must be transitory, tentative and “probabilistic”, with no fixed rules. What's more, a flexible structure capable of changing quickly is guaranteed to unsettle adversaries.
With regard to Iraq, these forms of organisation are more typical of a guerrilla warfare group than of a conventional army. In other words, the Marine doctrine acknowledges that maximum efficiency is reached by providing a specific response to every type of enemy move, whether it is a mentality of ambush, surprise, invisibility, terror, speed, tempo, improvisation etc.
The advantage the marines enjoy because of their technological superiority is more than neutralised by their unfamiliarity with the terrain. Rather than engage in head-on conflict, insurgent forces employ guerrilla warfare tactics to battle a superior force—a method known as asymmetric strategy. The occupying forces react, attempting to recover the dynamics of a symmetric battle by deploying the corps best suited to fight this form of guerrilla warfare: the Marines. No one seems to believe the conflict will end quickly. Instead, it is likely to be a long and drown out dispute.
Our colleague James March was a consultant to the Marines. His favourite soldier (and executive) is General Kutuzov, the great Russian general of the masterpiece War and Peace—the official who often fell asleep during strategy sessions. He believed that the best strategy was to create chaos and tension, in an effort to wear down the enemy, and then to wait. He considered tactics and patience to be more effective than strategy. Perhaps that makes him a favourite general of the insurgent forces. One can just imagine who is reading Kutuzov in Baghdad.