the complete failure of colin powell
One of the very first posts I ever wrote for orgtheory is an analysis of the Powell doctrine, which says, roughly, that you should only engage in war if you have over whelming political support and firepower. I thought the Powell doctrine was a mess from an organizational perspective:
For an organizational theorist, there’s a broader lesson about group learning – things go bad when managers prepare for situations where it is easy to prepare, rather than prepare for situations they are likely to face.
The reason that the US armed forces relied on the Powell doctrine of overwhelming numbers and superiority of force was that they allowed political concerns to drive the kinds of situations they analyze and train for. Specifically, the Powell doctrine was a response to the post-Vietnam desire to avoid ill defined, long term conflicts with guerillas…
This is like corporate managers preparing for competitors that are easy to understand and that they have experienced already, instead of preparing for competitors they are likely to encounter. The Powell doctrine essentially says: “We only become involved in cases where we can decisively win and thus our preparations will be geared towards these situations.” Instead, the doctrine should probably be “we’ll cultivate tools for the situations we’ll likely encounter and develop capacities for improvisation and learning in vague and ill defined environments.”
Eight years later, I feel justified. The US armed forces have been asked to do all kinds of crazy things that only fit Powell doctrine on occasion. For example, the 2006 Surge doesn’t quite fit, or the “muddling through” that we’re doing in Iraq right now. In other words, the Powell doctrine was a reactionary response to the mismatch between Cold War forces and the reality of Vietnam. Good doctrine doesn’t emerge from one encounter. Instead, you have to be honest and admit that Presidents will ask the armed services to do all kinds of things that aren’t well thought out.