CX lessons from wars

Learning from General Petraeus (Part 3)

The “customer experience” approach was necessary if the U.S. army were ever going to get the Iraqi people to trust them.  It’s an approach that goes back a long way as Jean Larteguy’s novel The Centurions illustrates.  The novel focuses on the experience of a number of French officers captured by the Vietminh at Dien Bein Phu in 1954.  According to Thomas Powers the French had a similar approach to the Americans in that “they believed that firepower, mobility, and professional soldiering would beat any ragtag army of guerrillas.  But Pierre Raspeguy, the hero of The Centurions if there is one, listened to the Vietminh in Camp One and absorbed their rule number one.“You’ve got to have the people on your side,” he said, “if you want to win a war.”

The People Are the Prize

In The Insurgents Fred Kaplan tells a story that describes the typical U.S. army officer mindset prior to Petraeus’s ascent. During a TheCenturions_covertraining exercise carried out in 1991 a captain and his officers were to enter a village in order to capture a sniper who had killed one of the soldiers.  “The captain had decided to accomplish this mission by storming the village before daylight, guns cocked, pounding down doors, dragging the local men out of their houses, locking them in handcuffs, and interrogating them harshly, all while their families watched in horror.  Of course he came up with nothing.”  When the British officer carrying out the review informed him that his approach was the type that alienates people and creates more insurgents the captain blurted “Lookit!…My job is not to deal with this people thing!  My job is to kill the enemy.”  It was an approach that was apparent on the ground during the first four years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. General Jack Keane, one of Petraeus’s main sponsors, said as much to General Ray Odierno on the outskirts of a cordoned off village in 2003: “What’s going on here Ray? We’re breeding an insurgency here.  We’ve got to see the people as part of the solution.”

While an organisational change project is nowhere near as messy as trying to counter insurgency it’s noteworthy how many of them falter as they disregard the people involved.  Throughout the course of my own career I’ve seen change initiatives falter and peter out as a result of an arrogant“Let’s Invade Poland and show them who knows best” mentality that gives little or no consideration to those on the ground.  If leaders do not have the foresight and skill to build up a groundswell of opinion across the board that what they wish to do is a good thing for all concerned they are in trouble and can expect their own little insurgencies.

Present Shock

Continuing with the organisational change theme many change managers will be aware that nowadays with shorter business cycles and executives focused on delivering good news to the City or Wall Street every quarter there is little or no focus on delivery in the medium or long term.  There seems to be no focus on the future, it’s now or nothing.

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff traces the shift in focus from the future to the present to the “anti-climax of the  Millenium.”  In the recently publishedPresent Shock (2013) he tells us that “something did shift that night as we went from years with 19’s to those with 20’s.  All the looking forward slowed down.  The leaning into the future became more of standing up to the present.  People stopped thinking about where things were going and started to consider where things were…In the financial world, for example, an investment’s future value began to matter less than its current value.  Just ten weeks into the millennium, the major exchanges were peaking with the tech-heavy and future-focused NASDAQ reaching its all-time high, over 5,100 points.  Then the markets started down – and have never quite recovered.  Although this was blamed on the bubble, the market’s softening had nothing to do with digital technologies actually working (or not) and everything  to do with a larger societal shift away from future expectations and instead toward current value.  When people stop looking to the future, they start looking at the present.  Investments begin to matter less for what they might someday be worth, because people are no longer thinking so much about “someday” as they are today.”


In their own way some members of the U.S. army seemed to be aware of this phenomenon and were able to relate it to their own precarious situation in Iraq.  Major Joel Rayburn , who served under Petraeus acolyte and counterinsurgency enthusiast H.R. McMaster in Tal Afar in 2005, is credited with this gem: “You know, house guests are like fish…They stink after two or three days.  We’ve been in Iraq for three years now, and we’re starting to stink.”  Petraeus supported this militaristic version of present shock when he stressed that “every army of liberation has a half-life before it becomes an army or occupation.”

A globalised and social media dominated society exacerbates this sense of present shock.  In The Accidental Guerilla David Kilcullen describes this phenomenon when he writes of the impossibility for governments and organisations to achieve “message unity” due to the fact that “under globalised conditions the media space is a domain, an ecosystem, or even a battle space, filled with dozens of independent, uncoordinated, competing, and conflicting entities rather than a single actor or audience…almost all of them outside the control of governments and media corporations.”

Long-Term Commitment

This need for an almost immediate impact must be balanced against an equally important need to demonstrate long term commitment as the population are unlikely to support the counterinsurgent unless they are sure that he is going to hang around until it’s all over.   The population are worried about retribution for collaboration with the occupier.  The dilemma was spelled out by one intelligence officer in Iraq when he said “we secure a town but after we leave, some of our informants are killed by the insurgents; that is a problem.”

David Gallula

Lieutenant Colonel David Gallula served in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria for the French Army.  His book Counterinsurgency Warfare is regarded as a classic of the genre.  Here he describes the dilemma encountered by the occupied population as both insurgent and counterinsurgent battle for hearts and minds.

“Contact with the population, is actually the first confrontation between the two camps for power over the population.  The future attitude of the population, hence the probable outcome of the war, is at stake.  The counterinsurgent cannot afford to lose this battle…The battle happens because the population, which was until recently under the insurgent’s open control and probably still is under his hidden control through the existing political cells, cannot cooperate spontaneously even if there is every reason to believe that a majority is sympathetic to the counterinsurgent.”

For change managers it’s worth considering how to build trust in the communities they are working in and also how to protect those who support their initiatives, especially if the project is in danger of being shelved.


Petraeus took command of operations in Afghanistan in July 2010.  This time he was unable to work the miracles he had in Iraq.  According to Fred Kaplan this  was down to the primitive nature of the country, which had a scattered and rural population which the corrupt Karzai government could only govern through political patronage, a primitive economy which arrested the rise of an entrepreneurial class, and a long border with Pakistan whose leaders were assisting therules-for-radicalsinsurgency.  Kaplan points the finger at Petraeus for being over-prescriptive in the application of counterinsurgency doctrine when it really only was “a technique and not a grand strategy.”  Through hubris and inertia Petraeus, he feels, allowed the counterinsurgency doctrine to become a one-size-fits-all universal dogma.

How many leaders have ruined organisations or projects because of their overriding and toxic belief that there is only one way to get things done?  On that final note it’s worth remembering what the political activist Saul Alinsky said of dogma in Rules for Radicals (1971).

“I detest and fear dogma.  I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on.  That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic.  Dogma is the enemy of human freedom.  Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement.  The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.”


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