What business can learn from the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Ukraine war

When decisions go bad, you can almost always blame inadequate intelligence, wrong assumptions and a focus on casting blame.

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Companies often make a set of recurring mistakes in business operations that can become damaging when doing a merger, divestiture, or acquisition. But most of these mistakes are usually concealed and covered up; scapegoats are blamed, people are fired, and the decision-makers at fault get off scot free.

In watching the Afghanistan withdrawal last year, and the more recent attack by Russian on Ukraine, you can see mistakes in real-time on public display. And while the blame game can still divert our attention about them, it’s worth using both events as teachable moments.

The three mistakes I mean are moving with inadequate intelligence; making false assumptions; and focusing on blame instead of causal analysis. (I have been on the wrong side of that last one myself and understand it well.)

Afghanistan and inadequate Intelligence

Before the Biden administration came into office, it had two big problems — one known, one unknown. The known problem: it was aggressively blocked by the Trump administration from briefings about current operations. The unknown problem: virtually all third-party support had been pulled from the region, leaving the Afghanistan Army unable to stand on its own.

The Biden administration lacked the information it needed to confirm a decision it had made (and key players in the region warned that the Afghanistan army was in trouble). Had Biden’s team taken the time to understand the problem, it might have mitigated it and could have blamed the delay on the prior administration’s lack of adequate preparation. By deciding to go ahead without adequate information, it rightfully owned the messy result.

It reminds me of HP’s acquisition of Autonomy. Before the acquisition, HP did not have enough information to make a measured decision (and the CFO at the time was not on board). But HP leaders felt the need to push ahead, and the move failed spectacularly as a result.

The Autonomy acquisition stands in contrast to Dell’s purchase of EMC, which should have been much harder to do, given EMC’s size. Dell’s approach was to make information-based decision, and it pivoted early to deploy teams that could define any related problems and develop a successful plan to accomplish the merger.

Russian and Ukraine: a lack of controls

Facebook and Russia have similar leadership structures, with top executives that cannot be removed and who act tactically and ill-advisedly on major decisions. I first saw this at IBM in the late 1980s: senior leaders became isolated, made catastrophic decisions, IBM got its first unplanned CEO termination. Many of Facebook’s mistakes in recent years can be traced back to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a leadership structure that lacks checks and balances. It’s how Russia is now run.

When a great deal of power resides in one person, that person is more likely to make avoidable catastrophic mistakes, which the invasion of Ukraine appears to be. The typical response is to publicly terminate subordinates and blame them for problems caused by the country’s (or company’s) leader. This results in a cascading problem: the people being cut loose are often those who disagreed with the decision — making it more likely that future decisions will also be catastrophic.

Adequate controls are important at every level of company leadership, especially at the top, because mistakes at that level are more likely to be catastrophic. Intel’s leadership under Brian Krzanich was like that, but the company’s board was eventually able to force him out. Now, Pat Gelsinger is busy fixing problems that never should have existed in the first place. That kind of option doesn’t seem possible at Facebook (or in Russia), suggesting both have futures that are anything but certain.

Placing blame

We often focus too much on blame. Executives who may be good at corporate politics are often very good at putting the blame for their mistakes somewhere else. I once did a report about a senior vice president of sales — one of the most powerful people in my company — who had fielded salespeople who did not understand the market or the products they were selling. He leaked my report to a competitor, accused me of leaking it and aggressively moved to have me fired. Fortunately, I had anticipated a leak, and with the help of others in the company was able to identify that same sales vice president as the problem. He ended up leaving to work for the competitor he’d leaked the report to. But the main problem was never addressed, contributing to the eventual failure of my division.

It's easy for people to shift blame when blame, not analysis, is the focus. Understanding first what causes a problem before proposing and especially implementing a fix is critical. Otherwise, you will do more harm and the problem is likely to recur.

The Ukraine war has highlighted three problems Russia didn’t seem to know it had. First, the Russian people do not support the war, which drags down military effectiveness and creates significant internal operational efficiency problems. Second, the Russian military is in poor repair, due to substandard components like tires. Third, to be successful, the operation had to be over in days to avoid a worldwide backlash. But taking cities in days with current technology is not possible unless you kill or remove their populations, neither of which was viable, given the potential NATO might enter the fight.

To sum up: in business operations, inadequate intelligence, a lack of control over decision-makers and an excessive focus on blame (instead of causal analysis) can assure the failure of any project, whether that be a product failure like Zune (Microsoft’s attempt to fight the iPod), or a war like the one we are seeing play out in Ukraine.

Failure can be avoided, but only if you focus on ensuring decisions are well founded — and you cannot do that without understanding the information about a decision, making sure the decision-maker is well grounded, and focusing more on learning from mistakes than finding scapegoats. It’s something to keep in mind as you watch current events.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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