Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations

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.’

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What might service transformation learn from the world’s most fearsome mammal and a wax-eating bird?

honey badger and honeyguide

My fiancée and I are hoping to go on an safari honeymoon in Africa later this year.

If we go, I would really like to see a honey badger and a honeyguide.

The honeyguide is a bird that likes beeswax but can’t break into bee hives. What it does is catches the attention of a honey badger, which loves honey but isn’t so good at finding the hives.

Off they go together, the badger following the bird till they reach the hive. The badger then rips open the hive and both get their reward.

Both these independent organisms can exist without beeswax and honey and without one another, but they combine their skills in a wonderful manner to achieve a shared goal.

These special symbiotic relationships happen throughout the natural world. I think that they ought to happen in the world of public services too, especially in the context of citizen engagement with public services online.

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Stuff what I has been reading: 17/02/10 – 24/02/10

'Reading the TV novels summary' by pedrosimoes7

Over the last seven days, I have become a richer and more-engaging person for having read:

1. ‘Evaluating our blogs‘ from Stephen Hale’s FCO blog

“Foreign Office bloggers should focus on making sure that their blogs are integrated, personal, real-time, and 2-way. These are the headline findings of our detailed evaluation of the impact and reach of our blog”

The latest in a strong series of evaluations by the FCO’s Digital Diplomacy Group of their digital media activities. A very useful, well set out contribution to the growing body of research on governments’ use of digital engagement.

2. ‘British Social Attitudes 25th Report‘ from the National Centre for Social Research

“Every year the British Social Attitudes survey asks around 3000 people what it’s like to live in Britain and how they think Britain is run. The survey tracks people’s changing social, political and moral attitudes and informs the development of public policy.”

Published back in January, this report and the short summary of findings provided online, are essential reading on the British social attitudes ahead of the General Election.

3. ‘How to handle and encourage trailblazers‘ by Laurence Jackson for Guardian Public

“The public sector is hardly renowned for taking risks, but leaders should be able to identify trailblazers in their organisation – employees with a creative spark or energy or vision – and encourage them to realise their potential”

An overview of a study – conducted by Manchester Business School and Wickland Westcott – of the characteristics, career history and ambitions of 30 public sector leaders, selected for their ability to drive transformation in public services.