Maneuvering large organizations

con31.jpgAt the Adaptive Leadership Conference, Col Mike Wyly, USMC, Ret., shared his thoughts on why the USMC was able to adopt maneuver warfare — incompletely perhaps, but more than any other service. Mike, who is often called the “Godfather of Maneuver Warfare” in the Corps, began teaching the strategy in the mid-1970s. His efforts first bore fruit with the publication of FMFM 1, Warfighting, in 1989 and then were crowned in 2003 when two of his students led the First Marine Division, using maneuver warfare, in the advance into Iraq.

His advice was not unlike John Robb’s in “Open Source Insurgency — How to Start” or Boyd’s description of Soviet Revolutionary Strategy (Patterns, 51, 67-68).

Some of the main points were:

  • Large-scale change requires a cadre or vanguard of true believers/focos who are willing to sacrifice their careers to see the change succeed.
  • Emotion is great, but it is not enough. The cadre must make logically irrefutable arguments for the change, backed up by data and historical precedent (preferably from the organization’s own history). This step is key, because the cadre is asking the organization to stake its existence on an as-yet unproven (in the eyes of many) theory. Small errors of fact will be seized upon as evidence of weakness in the theory or of its adherents.
  • It helps to run small experiments in parts of the organization to demonstrate that the proposed change not only works but works in that organization.
  • Capture the organization’s training establishment. For the Marine Corps, this was the Amphibious Warfare School.
  • Convert the young captains — high performing professionals with enough experience to understand why the change is needed and appreciate that it works.
  • Persist — at least until some of the young captains have achieved senior rank. Change may happen more quickly, but this is a nearly fool-proof strategy, if your proposed change is strong enough to survive the intervening years of criticism and testing.
  • Promote a champion to the top position. In the case of the Marine Corps, this was the selection of General Al Gray as Commandant in 1987. Again, persistence was critical because the movement had to survive and continue building strength until a champion could appear.
  • Persistence is everything. The ability to hold the cadre together during the inevitable setbacks is a critical leadership challenge. Not for nothing is this called “protracted war.”

Mike also provided three implementation tips. First, bring in a small number of distinguished outsiders to buttress the theory. For the Marine Corps, these included retired German generals who had successfully used maneuver concepts in WW II, and John Boyd. Second, publish. Articles in professional journals where the ideas are open to debate and attack not only add legitimacy to the message but demonstrate courage, a very attractive quality. And finally, action: do things, like the experiments mentioned above, to show that the proposed change is more than just philosophy and speculation.

In summary, selling a large change requires that you be right and that you attract people, not only numbers but well placed in the system, to your cause. Organizational change is an exercise in grand strategy, where attracting the uncommitted is the ultimate determinant of victory. Unfortunately, history suggests that martyrdom is often the requirement if not the reward. Although several of Mike’s students are now high-ranking Marine generals, none of the original cadre made it beyond colonel.

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One Response to “Maneuvering large organizations

  • 1
    March 24th, 2008 17:40

    Reading Implementing Boyd II.

    You sure know your stuff Chet.

    Very impressive.


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