Chaos and Complexity #12: Terrorism

by Gary Monti on November 30, 2010

Meeting General Colin Powell (ret.) and speaking on building bonds among team members at a project management conference were two opportunities I was fortunate to have earlier this month. His keynote speech on change and the need to be humble when dealing with power (and the loss of it) was a perfect lead in for my talk on trust building. It also got me thinking about another topic I follow – Terrorism.

The Benefits of Giving Recognition

General Powell never mentioned politics or terrorism. He talked about working with people and stressed the need to connect with those who provide support. He gave several reasons:

  1. Whatever gets accomplished will be done through these team members;
  2. The team members are the ones putting themselves on the line and taking the heat;
  3. As a human being it feels better treating people with respect;
  4. When treated with respect the odds go up the team will help avoid mistakes and identify and recover from those that are made;
  5. Performance improves in the presence of trust.

His words were strikingly appropriate and apply to a project manager as much as any leader.

Humility and Home Life

Another topic about which he spoke was how his shift from public life to private had its own challenges. He spoke of going from having a 767 at his disposal and always having the path in front of him cleared to finding himself retired and sitting at the kitchen with his wife asking him, “You don’t plan on staying home do you?” The crowd roared with laughter. The situation was very real, though. His terrain was dancing.

Those connections built over the years and based on respect helped him move on to another phase of life and a new direction. Treating people well along the way paid off. There is a quote that is very fitting.

Only I can take my journey, but I can’t do it alone.”

In complex and chaotic situations this is especially true. The situation is fueled by trust.

Terrorists

A mash-up of ideas occurred while thinking about Powell, connection, kitchen tables, and respect which pushed to the forefront another concept that fit the principles: dealing with terrorism. As examples for chaos and complexity go, the situation surrounding terrorism is one of the best.

Terrorism thumbs its nose at best-practice, top-down approaches. And terrorists are good at it. They create large force multipliers extending beyond the battlefield. They are always looking for tipping points. Look at the dust-up that has been occurring with enhanced pat downs and invasive scanners. Not only are millions, if not billions, of dollars being spent, society gets thrown off balance. All this because of someone who had explosives in his underpants! Terrorists’ goals are to create chaos and, hopefully (from their perspective) random behavior leading to anarchy. The stir caused by their tiny, planned efforts would make any commander proud.

And how is this dealt with? Where does success occur? Simply being the big dog does not make that much difference in situations such as this. Success is measured at the small, detail level. People holding together and sticking to what works one passenger at a time. What a challenge! Yes, commanders are needed but, yes, their job is to get the right equipment in the right person’s hands at the right time. This brings us back to complexity where the team’s bond and ability to perform is what makes all the difference.

So terrorists work to make things chaotic (if not random) and committed security team members work to build the bonds needed to trap the terrorist and keep things safe. That is complex behavior.

Security teams strive to move to best practice but the enemy adapts and changes their plans in an attempt to re-introduce chaos. At times the best that can be done is reduce the chaos to complexity. This means trade-offs are inevitable.

While going through the new scanners to go outside the United States on business this past weekend I thought about Powell and his wife sitting at the kitchen table like any other couple and also about how the devil is in the details when it comes to complexity and chaos and catching terrorists. The terrain just keeps on dancing.

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