Retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal today traced the path of how the rapid uptake of technology – and its impact on organizational culture – helped to transform the operating philosophy and methods of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that he commanded during the mid-2000s.

Relying on those lessons learned, he counseled attendees at the ServiceNow Federal Forum 2022 on March 10 that “the best time is now” to embark on changing their organizations for the better.

During a keynote address to a capacity crowd at the in-person ServiceNow event, McChrystal explained that while JSOC – which combines special forces elements from several service branches – represented a fierce fighting force since its inception in 1980, it also tended to have a siloed approach due to strong service loyalties.

He said that when JSOC fought against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003, it was going up against a very decentralized enemy, and had to make big tech and cultural changes to meet that challenge.

Because the enemy had a decentralized organization, “they were very resilient … you couldn’t take out Mr. Big and cause the organization to fall down,” he recalled. “The hard part of this is it was so different from anything we’ve ever seen – we did all the things we’d done for years and did them better than we’d ever done them, but we didn’t get the outcome we expected, we weren’t destroying” the enemy, he said.

“What we found at the end was that we lacked excellence. It wasn’t that we couldn’t do our job shooting, or communicating, doing all those things. The problem was when you got down to it, we weren’t this dream team,” McChrystal said.

Cultural Silos

“Each of the organizations that made up JSOC” made the command elite, he said, but because of intense service loyalties “it was cohesive but it was also insular, almost tribal,” he said.

“When you got to one of these [JSOC component] organizations, you’re very happy to stay there, typically for much of your career, and you identified with that,” the general explained. “But tribes don’t usually work well with other tribes.”

“The reality is, instead of being a team of teams, we were a tribe of tribes” and “actually less than the sum of our parts,” McChrystal said. “The reason this has never come up before is because JSOC had never been pressure tested with a challenge of this size or complexity or duration.”

“What we found is we were siloed,” he said. “You could say they were silos of excellence inside each other, but they’re still silos. This is the kind of thing that causes you to be ineffective in larger efforts.”

Enter Technology

A primary adjustment that JSOC made to improve the organization was through the adoption of the latest communications technologies, the general said.

“This was a perfect moment for us because in about 2003, technology was available that had never been available before,” he said. “We suddenly had the ability to do e-mail, chat equivalent, video, secure video, teleconferences from everywhere. We could get locations of everybody all the time, we could talk to every one of our operators. We had a level of connectivity that no military force even dreamed of before.”

“But the key part,” McChrystal continued, “was how do you meld that with your people? Because just having technology is great, and just having great people is great, but neither is sufficient. What we found is what we’re really talking about … is molding that technology with your culture so that you get the most out of the technology, so that together they make a difference.”

He said JSOC resisted the temptation to reorganize the force – which he said can be an “exercise in self-deception.” Rather, the general said, “it was how we share information, where and how we made decisions, that needed to change.”

He described the change as becoming a “hybrid … not one or the other, but constantly adapting ourselves to what was needed.”

Applying Lessons Today

“In today’s environment … whatever works today is going to need to be constantly updated,” the general counseled attendees at today’s ServiceNow Federal Forum. “Having something flexible is probably the best approach you can find.”

“Very few generations in roles like yours get a chance to change the Federal government because we’ve got tools available now to change it substantively,” he told attendees.

“So here’s the question, when do we change,” he asked. “Do you wait until the technology is right, do you wait to get the right leadership?” In the face of those questions, the general offered that “the best time is right now, it’s our responsibility.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.