How do you make sense of what’s happening in a chaotic environment? What is noise and what actually matters?
In the fall of 2004 I found myself right outside the city during the Second Battle of Fallujah. As the Senior Watch Officer for Regimental Combat Team 7’s headquarters, on the night shift, there was a continuous avalanche of information streaming into the Combat Operations Center where I worked and it arrived through dozens of channels. There was a giant map on the wall to the front of the station where I sat that was regularly updated with both friendly and enemy movements. The radio operators worked to my left, constantly monitoring five or six different frequencies. To the left of the map was a big screen TV with a scrolling display of several chat rooms, and next to that was another big screen displaying feeds from surveillance drones. To my right sat several different teams of Marines with their own screens, telephones, and radios. They received inputs from aviation, artillery, various intelligence sources, etc. Right on the desk in front of me, from left to right I had my own unclassified computer, a classified computer, and a telephone. And during the height of the battle, the data and information flowing through each channel increased from that of a garden hose to that of a fire hose… or more.
Mine was not an isolated experience, others who have served in operation centers all over the world could tell a similar tale. Same for those working in a 911 call center or on a Wall Street trading desk. Or today, even those sitting in a suburban living room with 1,000 channels on cable and instant access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text, telephone… How do we make sense of it all?
With RCT-7, we dealt with the situation through process and training. When I first arrived to the RCT, the Master Gunnery Sergeant handed me a thick binder and sat me down to go through it (the binder contained the standard operating procedure for the operations center). I joined the team halfway through their year-long deployment, during a period of intense combat operations, and they had refined their procedures through constant trial and error, and constant review. After my SOP brief, I spent a week shadowing the Marine I was replacing, observing him for the first half of the week and then doing the job the second half while he closely mentored me. And then for the rest of my tour, we built teamwork through frequent drills and constant after-action reviews. Good 911 call centers and Wall Street trading desks do something similar.
That experience taught me something fascinating about people. Humans make sense of the world around them by creating stories about the events they live. They also use stories to communicate events to other people, because stories deliver context, meaning, and knowledge in a way that a constant stream of data and information cannot.
At the end of November 2004, the battle in Fallujah started to shift toward stability operations in the northern half of the city. Nevertheless, there were still many bad actors up there, and we kept a close eye on a certain row of houses in particular. At the beginning of my watch one evening, I distinctly remember hearing these houses referred to as “Frat Row.” That was humorous, and memorable, but I moved on quickly as we got busy that night. The next night when I came back on watch again, the Frat Row story had spread like wildfire. Each of the houses was named, like the “Delta House,” and every Marine in the operations center referred to them this way. Not only that, but our air cell talking to the pilots flying overhead was using the house “names” to cue the sensors on their aircraft and to give them other instructions. The story was spreading to pilots who were operating from airfields all over the Middle East. What was happening in and around the houses came alive with characters straight from the movie Animal House. The story of Frat Row caught on because it was easy to remember and it made it feel simple to transmit a lot of information in a way that made sense. This was just one of hundreds of the storylines that emerged over the course of the battle.
I learned a seabag full of lessons while I was with RCT-7. The experience shaped my thinking about a number of things including how to handle a lot of information and still make effective decisions. I’ll surely write more about those subjects in the coming months, and how what I learned shaped me professionally in the following years.
For today, here are some things I learned that I think are useful for other leaders:
1. You can deal with high volumes of information successfully. You just need to think through the decisions you need to make and then what information you actually need in order to make those decisions. Too often I’ve seen it the other way around, people absorb all the data coming at them and then try to discern meaning from it. As the RCT’s Master Guns taught me, if you are going to MEDEVAC an injured Marine you need about four pieces of critical information. Focus on getting that information accurately, the rest can wait.
2. I also learned that ideally, good command and control is structured in this order: people, process, and systems. Start with the people and figure out what they need to be most effective, and then build the processes to support that. Only then, figure out what systems are needed to make it all run. It’s very American to buy the latest technology and then figure out how to use it, we should avoid this trap.
3. The human brain is wired for storytelling, both sending and receiving. A data-rich situation can be communicated best to another human in the form of a story. Take a pause sometime and listen to what’s being said around you in the workplace, the culture and “how we do it here” is likely being passed from one to another in the form of a story. Tapping into how stories work can really take your communication to the next level, just like it did for us with the Frat Houses of Fallujah.