Build or burn?

Agile management – a cautionary tale

Donald Rumsfeld and the second Iraq war offer some salutary lessons for those, like me, who emphasise agility and adaptability as the best way to meet the challenges of an uncertain business environment.

Donald Rumsfeld was appointed Secretary of Defense by President George W Bush in 2001 after a stellar career in politics and business.  He was first elected to the House of Representatives when John F Kennedy was still president.  In 2001 it was the second time he had served as Secretary of Defense, having previously served under Gerald Ford.  He harboured presidential ambitions himself but from 1977 joined Searle, a pharmaceutical firm, as CEO and then Chairman.  He led a successful business career for 13 years before joining the Bush administration.

Donal Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon on a mission to revolutionise the way the military was organised.  In place of the old cold war certainties, he saw a world full of threats that were unexpected and unpredictable and in that he was proved right by the subsequent 9/11 terrorist attacks.

His modernising ideas focusing on fewer, more mobile troops; expanding the use of high-tech warfare; and the increased use of special forces.   This involved, for example, reinvigorating the ‘star wars’ missile defence programme, investing in R&D, and predator drones.  It also involved reducing troop numbers in fixed bases, and emphasising smaller brigades over the larger divisions.  The philosophy was the ability to assemble and reassemble US forces wherever the threat emerged.

The ease of victory in Afghanistan seemed to vindicate this unconventional approach with stories of special forces calling in precision missile strikes from horseback.  The first Iraq war had involved a patient build up of overwhelming force but this is alleged to have been too slow for Rumsfeld and he stands accused of reducing troop numbers until they were ‘just enough to lose’.  He is painted as being hostile to the concept of planning for the aftermath, preferring to rely on tactical agility of the troops on the ground.

It is tempting to characterise Rumsfeld’s diagnosis as being correct but his execution wrong.  I’m not so sure.  The success of Afghanistan would have been very influential.  Perhaps there were reasons to fear a slow build up of troops as being targeted by weapons of mass destruction.  Perhaps it was hubris or complacency.  I don’t know.  But the whole tale is a serious corrective to the philosophy of ‘agile’ management.

While Donald Rumsfeld was busy internally reorganising for asymmetric warfare, a huge surprise blind-sided him.  What appeared to work in Afghanistan, did not work in Iraq.  Overwhelming force was needed, as were more allies.

I learned a similar set of lessons myself.  In 2006-10 I led a £60m construction project with a client-side project office of two: myself and a project manager.  The project completed on time and on budget, with no issues on occupation.  From 2013-18 I led an £80m construction project using the same lightly resourced approach.  The project was finished on budget but several months late and with a large number of issues on occupation.  The major lesson from the second project was that the client-side project office was significantly under-resourced.

I’m still a fan of agile management but sometimes patient, careful planning, while assembling allies, is more effective.  The trick is in spotting which approach will work before launching your plan.

View all blog articles