Fighting Human Nature to Survive in Combat or Business
Turning Vulnerabilities into Strengths
For decades, I have successfully harvested wild game using primitive archery tackle. My success has come largely as a result of my understanding, and ability to exploit, an animal’s natural tendency to establish patterns. Despite our understanding of the innate vulnerabilities associated with routine behavior, we humans are no different than the quarry we pursue. We are creatures of habit with a natural desire to establish battle rhythms and steady-state operating procedures. Predictable schedules are comforting, but dangerous in combat and business alike.
Steady-state is an unvarying condition in a physical process. The very idea of an unvarying condition should send shivers up any leader’s neck; nevertheless, almost all organizations desire to develop a predictable, unvarying operating rhythm. When we become predictable in combat, people die. When it occurs in business we get outmaneuvered by our competitor. Yet due to our tendency toward predictability, we almost unconsciously establish a steady-state rhythm.
For the past fifteen years, military units have been conducting transitions, one unit to another, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We call the process right seat – left seat rides. As a leader, I would direct my unit to adopt the procedures of the unit we were replacing, but after a short trial period we would immediately being questioning all assumptions. To everything we do, ask why. That was our mantra.
My desire to question the procedures in place was not because I did not trust the unit we replaced, but rather because I wanted to prevent us from making the mistake of becoming predictable. The 21st Century operational environment changes rapidly. We face a clever, thinking enemy, therefore, we must never grow comfortable with our processes and procedures.
On January 6, 2009, Task Force Pale Horse assumed responsibility for four Afghan provinces (Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangahar). We replaced our sister squadron – 2-17 Cavalry. For months on end, 2-17 Cavalry had conducted resupply missions in the Korengal Valley during daylight hours. The Korengal is a small valley with multiple combat outposts that could only be accessed by helicopter. The resupply missions generally took four to six hours of repetitive turns with CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
We assumed responsibility of the Korengal resupply mission with the intent of trying to find a safer way to conduct it, but we were too late. On January 17, 2009, despite feeling uncomfortable with the idea of multiple turns in the Korengal during daylight hours, we executed the resupply mission. Having patterned our behaviors, the enemy was lying in wait. On that cold, rainy morning the enemy executed a complex air ambush on our Chinook. As they shot RPGs and heavy machine guns at the helicopter, they filmed it from multiple locations. We lost one American soldier and a brand new CH-47F Chinook helicopter. The enemy capitalized upon their success by releasing a propaganda video.
From that point forward, we conducted all resupply missions at night. 2-17 Cavalry had been equipped with CH-47D helicopters, which did not have glass cockpits with large, color cockpit screens, and moving map displays. On dark nights the pilots were limited to navigating the deep, dark Afghan valleys using night vision goggles. 2-17 Cavalry was forced to constantly balance environmental risk with enemy risk. We should have immediately questioned their risk analysis paradigm, because we were the first unit equipped with the new CH-47F, which gave us the ability to mitigate the risk of darkness in the mountains. The systems in the CH-47F used GPS to display the helicopter on a color screen map display. Our pilots flew with night vision googles, but the display was so good they could have flown off of the image on the screen. We waited too long to reassess our procedures, and our patterns cost us dearly.
Weeks later we struggled to understand the complex network of trails that the enemy used to travel back and forth from Pakistan to Afghanistan. I knew that their trail system was like an interstate highway system, but Google maps had not yet reached the Hindu Kush.
I woke one morning in early February to find a fresh snow on the ground. Overnight snow had fallen on the mountains along the Afghanistan – Pakistan border. Suddenly, I remembered my success hunting deer in the snow. Deer use the same trails when walking to and from water sources, food sources, and bedding areas. When it snows, their paths are easily discerned. Like the deer I had patterned in the snow, I knew that we would be able to clearly follow the mountain trails in Afghanistan.
I told my operations officer to launch several teams of scout helicopters. “I am going to take a team out as well,” I told him. “With this fresh snow we will be able to trace which trails they use to get to each location in the central Kunar and Pech River Valleys. Let’s go plot their trails.”
As predicted, hip-deep trails were obvious in the fresh snow. We were able to trace trails from the Pakistan border to specific river-crossing locations, villages, and remote valleys. Like us, the enemy was predictable. They used the same trails and generally traveled at the same times each day. We patterned our adversary rather easily, thus enabling our intelligence team to focus our future operations with pinpoint precision.
For centuries we have known that the enemy prefers to attack just before dawn and right after sunset. Drawing on that knowledge, we developed a procedure called “stand-to,” so that we are not surprised when the enemy attacks. Yet almost without exception we conduct our command post shift changes at the exact same time. It seems absurd, but we are creatures of habit. Back home, we begin work early in the morning, so when we go to war we bring the day shift on bright and early. Why would we schedule a daily shift change at the exact time we expect the enemy to attack us? Without processes that force us to systematically question our behaviors, we unconsciously pattern ourselves.
The lessons are clear for military units. Do not pattern yourself. Establish procedures that force your organization to systematically question the relevance of your processes. Resist the urge to establish a “steady-state.” Rather, create an organization that evolves with the environment. Private and public businesses are no different. Do not grow dangerously comfortable with doing things the way you always have done them. Constantly question your marketing strategy. Just because it increased sales last year does not mean that it will this year. Carefully evaluate your overhead. Innovate, evolve, and remain relevant. Otherwise your competitors will outmaneuver you. They will find a way to make their product faster, or cheaper, or both.