When I describe David Kilcullen to people I describe him as a ‘mash up’. In his look, Kilcullen is a cross between Steve Irwin and an American Football coach on R&R, replete with blazer and chinos. He’s an academic but he also spent 21 years in the army. He’s Australian but he worked for the American military.
He’s not terribly well-known in the UK, but in the States he’s revered as one of the architects of ‘The Surge in Iraq. His area of expertise, as an scholar and a soldier, is counter-insurgency. He’s a very good speaker and a talented writer, receiving plaudits from citizens and military-types alike for his 2009 book, ‘The Accidental Guerilla’, which packs essential reading on CT theory alongside explosive first-hand accounts of a hugely complex and dangerous area of warfare that most of us will thankfully only gawp at.
Having read ‘Accidental Guerilla’, I turned with interest to an earlier 2007 paper, ‘Twenty-Eight articles’ a practical guide for officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. One sentence early on stayed with me: ‘what does all the theory mean, at the company level?’ This tickled an idea in my head.
Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, written in the 6th century BC, has been applied ad nauseam to the business world. Maybe in Kilcullen we’ve got a latter day strategist who’s lessons from modern wars can better guide us in the current day. What if we swap out the army’s ‘company’ for civvy-street’s ‘organisation’? And consider ‘out-moded ways of thinking’ and ‘conventional wisdom’ our ‘enemy’ and ‘insurgent’?
As I reread ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ through this lens, I started to think ‘yes, there is something to this’; especially for managers in my trade. Public sector managers are finding themselves working in alien conditions. There are new ambitious bosses demanding more results with less resources. Money is one thing, but staff numbers have taken a hammering, and managers are finding their feet in new teams and often with new management structures on top. That’s not a complaint, it is a fact of [working] life. At the same time as doing ‘more for less’, many of these managers are trying to embed new ways of working amongst their staff and, crucially, their colleagues working around them.
It’s essentially a bit of fun and it’s comparison I make advisedly but I do believe that there are attitudes, principles and even practical lessons to be gleaned from Kilcullen’s counter-insurgency teachings for those trying to manage and deliver in tough times while also trying to bring about change.
You’ll have to read ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ to make an informed judgement for yourself. You’ll see the limits (no.19 is a prime example) but I’ve picked out some quotes to give a sense of what I’m leaning at and will leave you to make the translations. As Kilcullen says himself in sign-off:
Like any folklore it needs interpretation, and contains seemingly contradictory advice. Over time, as you apply unremitting intellectual effort to study your sector, you will learn to apply these ideas in your own way, and will add to this store of wisdom from your own observations and experience.
1. Know your turf
‘Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance… Share out aspects of the operational area among platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers: have each individual develop a personal specialization and brief the others. Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you.’
2. Diagnose the problem
‘…in theater, situations will arise too quickly for orders, or even commander’s intent. Corporals and privates will have to make snap judgments with strategic impact. The only way to help them is to give them a shared understanding, then trust them to think for themselves on the day.’
3. Organize for intelligence
‘Your operations will be intelligence driven, but intelligence will come mostly from your own operations, not as a ‘product’ prepared and served up by higher headquarters… put the smartest soldiers [on intelligence duty]… you will have one less rifle squad: but the intelligence section will pay for itself in lives and effort saved.’