Project Management Lessons from Operation Anaconda
In honor of Memorial Day, today’s post is part one of a two-part series that applies principles inspired by the experiences of American military servicemembers (part two will post on Tuesday). Today focuses on lessons learned during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. Pete Blaber, a Delta Force commander who directed significant aspects of Operation Anaconda, wrote a book called The Mission, the Men, and Me in which he shares principles he has learned during his military career, and particular emphasis in the book is given to Operation Anaconda. These principles definitely apply outside military, life-or-death contexts and extend into any realm of operations, including civilian group project management.
In his book, Blaber describes fatal situations that arose from not handling communications and change in the best way possible. Operation Anaconda was a success, but Blaber contends that casualties like those sustained in the Battle of Takur Ghar (when Navy SEALs and others who went to rescue them died in poorly handled maneuvers) could have been avoided by maintaining more open flows of communication and exercising more flexibility based on changing circumstances.
Blaber’s main principles of operational success all center around communication. He says that the success of the Advanced Force Operations (AFO) groups participating in Anaconda was in large part due to “their boundaryless communications. Each team maintained continuous communication with their fellow AFO teams, the aircraft flying overhead, and with the 10th Mountain troops on the valley floor. … [M]ultiple radios … empowered the teams to ask questions, listen to each other’s insights, and understand the friendly and enemy activity going on around them” (p. 268).
This sort of open, multidirectional communication definitely belongs in the workplace, or in any situation that involves multiple people working on the same project. Each person involved can see a different part of the picture, and sharing that is vital. Blaber says, “Sharing information is how we create an accurate portrayal of reality” (p. 296). Without a shared reality, you and your team members cannot achieve realistic results. Building this reality means that communication shouldn’t be coming only from the person in charge: communication should be going from top to bottom, bottom to top, and laterally to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
Another principle Blaber emphasizes is flexibility. In one instance, after his AFO teams were in place but before conventional troops joined the operation, Blaber tried to communicate to those overseeing the operation that the plan they’d decided on was no longer a good one given the new information his teams had gathered. But no one was willing to change the plan, which probably resulted in heavier losses than there would have been if a new strategy had been implemented.
“To me that moment perfectly summed up the futility of traditional planning versus the utility of developing the situation. By pledging their allegiance to the plan, the 10th Mountain had inadvertently surrendered their freedom of choice. As a result, the entire force was operationally incarcerated in the prison of the plan” (p. 260).
Yielding up your freedom of choice when your project is constantly evolving and developing inhibits you and your team. Without the opportunity to adapt plans, adjust deadlines, or propose new outcomes, your team could very well end up “incarcerated in the prison of the plan” and incapable of reaching your project’s potential.
That said, sometimes accepting change to the plan can be difficult. But you can practice flexibility. Once mastered, flexibility is just one more weapon in your arsenal that enables you to achieve your operational objectives.