[April 29, 2020] Senior leaders are experienced in resolving vague, uncertain, complex problems. Solving such issues will inevitably get supported or disagreement on its effectiveness, reliability, and appropriateness. When problems are highly complex, and there is time available, one way to overcome resistance is by socializing the new idea.
One of the most significant decisions in the Iraq War will illustrate how socializing a new idea works. In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. military and the coalition fighting in Iraq saw a dramatic increase in insurgent activity, causing a jump in casualties among coalition troops and civilians. How to resolve this developing problem required new thinking about the Iraq War.
Senior staff officers presented many ideas in large forums at the Al Faw Palace (Baghdad), giving us several courses of action. Senior officials from the White House the Pentagon were present on secure video teleconferencing. There seemed to be a never-ending stream of ideas that produced more forums and meetings. By late 2006, we weren’t getting anywhere.
In early 2007, a young man from General Petraeus’ “brain trust” staff had the idea of a surge in troops to be used in a new counterinsurgency strategy. He called a number of his friends in the Department of State, at the White House, U.S.-based senior staffers, the FBI, CIA, and other “interagency actors.” Slowly and patiently he worked his social skills throughout the bureaucracy.
Weeks went by when all stakeholders were contacted and his idea examined inside and out. There were informal gatherings and small forums of a dozen or so people that eventually grew into more extensive, formal conferences. Gen. Petraeus encouraged this effort. While it took several months to socialize this new idea of a troop surge, its initial success in planning was not guaranteed. These were anxious times. Eventually, the strategy saw approval by the U.S. president.
Socializing new ideas at any level in any bureaucracy comes with great difficulty. Large, resource-rich solutions are risky where failure means a terrible price is paid. In war, that price is the lives of troops and local civilians. Without this idea of a “surge” being socialized, it might never have been approved or, if approved, would it have met resistance from the many government agencies.
Socializing a new idea must involve all stakeholders, overseen by senior leaders, be executable with on-hand resources, and have the buy-in of nearly everyone. Hundreds of thousands of working hours were consumed in the pursuit of this new Petraeus strategy. Fortunately, it worked and the insurgency collapsed. We can disagree with the war or why it occurred, but no one can deny that the surge worked and that the unknown socialization of this new strategy worked.