Lessons Learned on Organization

No one in history has successfully led a more complex organization than General Eisenhower during the liberation of Europe in 1944-45.  That is why I have such high regard for his dictum: “The right organization will not guarantee success, but the wrong organization will guarantee failure.

Even as a very junior officer in Vietnam in the 1960s, it was obvious that the U.S. organizational structure was dysfunctional.  General Westmoreland thought he was in charge, the US Ambassador thought he was in charge, the CIA station chief thought he was in charge, and the commander of Pacific forces thought he was in charge.  This dysfunctional national security model lasted nearly another two decades—through the failed rescue attempt in Iran, the enormous coordination problems encountered during the invasion of Grenada, and the tragedy at the Marine barracks in Beirut.

On the other hand, the organization that planned and conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan represents a quantum improvement.  For that, we can thank the U.S. Congress (something I don’t frequently do). The executive branch would never have stepped forward to make the necessary organizational changes—in fact, the Chief of Naval Operations called the idea “un-American” —but Congress, in one of its greatest demonstrations of courage and wisdom, gave America the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

The Congressional hearings on the Marine barracks disaster revealed that there had been 44 levels of command and staff between the President and the on-scene Marine commander. There were no clear lines of authority, responsibility, and accountability. To say Goldwater-Nichols streamlined the organizational model is a gross understatement. It reduced it from 44 to 4, and provided clear lines of authority, responsibility, and accountability.

Beginning with Just Cause in Panama, closely followed by Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Arabian Peninsula and all the way through the capture and summary execution of bin Laden, we have testament to the power of proper organizations.

Unfortunately, America’s biodefense organizational structure is far closer to Vietnam than what we witnessed in the termination of bin Laden. Today there are more than two dozen Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed individuals with some responsibility for biodefense, but no one has it for a full-time job and no one is in charge. This is so troubling because the planning, preparation, and execution of a response to an act of bioterrorism is far more complex than the bin Laden operation, and in some respects, even more complex and time-sensitive than Eisenhower’s European campaign.

We have plenty of examples of the results delivered by dysfunctional organizations and some notable models of success.  Will Congress once again demonstrate the courage and wisdom to provide the solution to a critical national security problem, or will it be up to a commission appointed by Congress to examine the disastrous response to an act of bioterrorism?

About biosecureblog

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) -CEO, WMD Center -former Executive Director, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -former chairman, Department of Military Strategy and Operations, National War College
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3 Responses to Lessons Learned on Organization

  1. Larry Swantner says:

    Randy,
    Thanks for the clear example of the value streamlined and concise lines of Command and Control brings to any complex operation. Having been in the middle east division in the pentagon during the Beirut bombings, flying in support of the aborted Tehran raid and as a commander in Desert Shield/Storm I can recognize and envy the efficiency the current structure gives and the support it provides to allow the troops at the point of the spear to get the job done.
    Best regards,
    Larry Swantner

  2. Bob Ross says:

    Colonel Larsen has returned to a very important point here, but it is one that needs to be hammered on, again and again, until something changes.

    There are lessons to be learned from other events that also bear on the issue of organizing and a few merit mention here.

    The flawed response to Katrina points out the imperative for people in positions of responsibility to actually understand their statutory authorities and responsibilities, as well as the organizational mechanisms put in place for fulfilling those responsibilities. They also need to have some level of operational competence. Michael Brown did not understand FEMA’s authorities or responsibilities or the National Response Plan, or what it takes to mount an effective response when subordinate levels of government are overwhelmed. In contrast, the Coast Guard in Katrina was populated by men and women at all levels who understood their authorities, responsibilities and capabilities and knew how to operate. Some 33,000 Americans survived Katrina because the Coast Guard had that kind of professionalism and operational competence. And it still does.

    The outcome of the failed Desert One hostage rescue mission in Iran makes clear the importance of structuring an operation for success rather than so that everyone gets a shot at shared glory. I am not one prone to quoting Navy flag officers when a pearl of wisdom is needed, but a quote I have heard attributed to Admiral William “Deke” Parsons gets it right – “There is no end to the good a man can do, provided he cares not who gets the credit.” What is important is getting the job done, not who does it or who gets credit for it. Of course, getting the job done requires that someone with the right tools and skills actually gets invited to the party.

    The difficulties encountered in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill point out the importance of ensuring that the available response mechanisms are properly scaled to the potential size of the event. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, written in response to the EXXON VALDEZ oil spill, was scaled for events up to a major ship-sized spill and was extremely effective in that domain. But many of the statutory requirements in OPA ’90 and much of the response planning and preparation under it were inadequate for a spill of the size of Deepwater Horizon. The point here is that the enabling authorities have to be adequate for event, and they have to be available at the outset. Waiting for after-the-fact emergency legislation or executive Orders is guaranteed to lead to failure. However, having adequate authorities available at the start is not enough. As certain aspects of the Deepwater Horizon response show, it is imperative that political leaders and others in positions of authority actually know enough about the authorities, responsibilities and preparations already in place so that they don’t inadvertently act in such a way that an existing response regime is effectively nullified and a vacuum created in its place. There are provisions of OPA ’90 that would have been adequate in the Deepwater Horizon event but they were not allowed to be used because ill-considered actions by politicians at all levels preempted or precluded their use.

    Organization is unimportant and it is all important. It is unimportant in that there are many ways of organizing for success. It is also all important in that you can organize so as to preclude the possibility of success. However, having a “right organization” on paper does not mean that you will succeed. You must also have the wherewithal, most especially properly skilled and experienced people, to enable said “right organization” to operate effectively.

    • Randy Larsen says:

      As usual, Bob is right on target.

      The right organization will not succeed without the required leadership. Admiral Crowe was the chairman when Goldwater-Nichols became law; however little changed. When General Powell became chairman, he took the bold action required to institute what Congress had legislated.

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