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The Worth of Water


In the Musa Q'alah Wadi, 2012

Do you really understand what your customer is asking for?


In August 2011 I led 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, as we deployed to the Now Zad and Musa Q’alah districts of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. We replaced another Marine infantry battalion in those two districts and quite naturally, they had several projects in motion that we would continue on our watch. It would have been fairly straightforward to just assume their projects and move out, but unfortunately, there was a constellation of other people and organizations running various programs and experiments that we had to contend with.


One of those type of projects was sponsored by the civil affairs organization that was headquarted at the main Coalition operating base in the Province at a place called Camp Leatherneck. One of the Reserve Marines in civil affairs had a tremendous background from his civilian life in agriculture, especially when it came to understanding irrigation. When our battalion arrived in August, he was close to completing a water survey of the Musa Q’alah district. The idea behind the survey was to develop an understanding of the water table and then create a committee among the local leadership to manage this critical resource in the challenging desert environment. Sounded like a good idea when we first heard about it.


It was explained to me before we took over responsibility for the district that this survey arose when the district’s elders asked the Marines to pay for canal cleaning projects. These canals lined the Musa Q’alah Wadi for miles and miles. Many of them had existed for hundreds of years in a primitive, but effective, system that moved water from the Wadi to farmers’ fields. After hearing the elders’ request to pay local people to clean the canals it was determined instead to perform the comprehensive survey and then establish the water management committee. There were other details to the the plan but that was the overall concept.


The completed survey was presented to the elders a few months after our arrival. They promptly ripped the survey to shreds. Their collective knowledge of the water infrastructure in the district far outstripped anything we could develop in a few short months, especially when considering that it often required Marines to conduct combat patrols to go out and get some of the information for the survey. And this was in a district that probably covers a couple hundred square miles.

I remember wondering at the time, how could such a well-meaning effort be so clearly off the mark?


We learned a lot from our after-action review of the project. When the elders asked for canal cleaning projects, the “need behind the need” was temporary employment for some of the local people. They wanted to be seen delivering jobs and money to their tribesmen, and I suspect they knew ways to enrich themselves a little bit through patronage, too.


The water survey was an answer to a different problem. No doubt it had merit, but the level of effort to fully implement the survey’s overall objective was unrealistic. Changing decades of practice in a community you know is difficult enough. Try doing it in a war zone in a foreign country.


I look back on it now and smile to myself, it’s a great illustration of good intentions gone wrong. Considering the circumstances, it was also fairly benign (in another article, I’ll share a not so benign story about how Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban used water to help them control the population).


As I’ve reflected on these events over the years, I think these are some of the leadership lessons that have emerged:


1. As Einstein famously said, “Our theories determine what we measure.” If we have a solution we’re eager to try, then we will look for the information that justifies using it. The intentions behind the water survey were good, even noble, but it just didn’t fit the circumstances.


2. This story really emphasizes the importance of active listening. It’s a skill that can be learned and improved over time. There are a lot of benefits for leaders who practice and get better at active listening, it helps both in knowing your people and in outside negotiations. Really understanding what the district’s elders wanted eventually led us in a fundamentally different direction.


3. As Eric Reiss wrote in Lean Startup, value is providing benefit to the customer, anything else is waste. He came to this realization after building something the market place didn’t want, and ended up wasting time and money. We performed a water survey that wasn’t useful, and insulted an important audience for us in the district.


Whether you’re a leader in the business world or fighting an insurgency, it pays to improve your listening skills.


When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.

-- Benjamin Franklin

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