Getting Ahead of Disruptive Change

Arnoud Franken
19 min readNov 18, 2020
A Tornado GR4 aircraft at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan is pictured at night. (OGL (Open Government License))

By Arnoud Franken and Edward Cripps

In November 2010, №7 Force Protection Wing of the UK’s Royal Air Force deployed to Kandahar Airfield (KAF), a strategically important airfield located in Southern Afghanistan, in the badlands of the Taliban. Following a year of intensive preparation, №7 Force Protection Wing, comprising a Wing Headquarters, №15 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, a Royal Air Force Police Security Squadron and a Royal Artillery Sense and Warn detachment, were ready to deploy and assume command over a multinational Task Group responsible for defending the airfield and protecting aircraft from ground attack during take-off and landing. This deployment marked the 10th and final 6-month rotation of RAF Force Protection Wings since the UK assumed responsibility for defending KAF in 2006.

The one certainty in war, like business, is that carefully laid plans will sooner or later fall victim to the unexpected. Within weeks of №7 Force Protection Wing arriving at KAF, home to a significant number of combat aircraft and 30,000 civilian, contractor and military personnel from 42 nations, the Taliban started firing 107mm rockets onto the base at night and just before dusk. Combined with the rockets being fired under the airfield’s radar, some at such a low trajectory that they put holes in the perimeter fence, it meant the attacks happened without warning. Consequently, they caused considerable shock and confusion, killed and injured people, and damaged aircraft and buildings.

As it turned out, the rockets were fired from within the ground defense area that 15 Squadron, the Wing’s sole ground combat unit able to operate ‘outside the wire’, was responsible for: a densely populated, heavily farmed area the size of Chicago. After manning all mandated tasks, however, the officer commanding 15 Squadron had only 50 men available to go after the perpetrators, who easily blended into the local population. Responding to these irregular and highly mobile ‘needles in a haystack’ would require far more manpower as well as intelligence and other assets. Although these were present on KAF, and owned by various commands, they were all allocated to supporting U.S. and NATO combat operations across Southern Afghanistan, not airfield defense. With a next-to-bottom priority ranking, №15’s squadron leader (rank equivalent to a major) knew that any formal request for extra support would be denied. He either had to accept seeing friends and colleagues being subjected to Taliban rocket attacks or become more resourceful.

Similar dilemmas are faced daily by leaders, innovators and change agents throughout business, government, healthcare and other organizations. They can see how digital technologies, globalization and shifting customer behaviors are disrupting their businesses, increasing attrition and shattering operations. Given the pace and success with which disruptors such as 23andMe, Amazon, Airbnb, Facebook, Square, Warby Parker and others are reshaping industries, few are under the illusion that their main competitor in few years’ time will be the same as today.

However, many leaders, innovators and change agents in mature organizations are hampered in their efforts to address or shape these rapid changes by those who want to protect the established ways of doing things. The fact that most organizations are segregated between disciplines and stratified by ranks makes an integrated response difficult, too. Neither does it help that common management wisdom is deeply rooted in the industrial age, and therefore more comfortable with top-down control, efficiency and sustaining extant practices than with bottom-up, information age, disruptive and empowering innovations.

Many leaders, innovators and change agents know that their organizations need to adapt to the realities of a flatter, faster, more interconnected business world. Given the fate of BlackBerry, Kodak, Nokia and other once dominant market leaders, it is well known that long-term success depends on the timely creation and successful introduction of new products, services and, particularly, management thinking. Organizations often possess the necessary resources and capabilities to do so, and many are in positions of strength (market position, customer base, brand and capital abundance). Yet many leaders, innovators and change agents find themselves unable to secure the necessary resources and commitment to break through entrenched boundaries and fluidly respond to a rapidly changing environment.

For №15 Squadron’s commander, it would have been a betrayal of the confidence and trust that his men, commanding officers and RAF Regiment had placed in him not to go the extra mile. This article shows how he and his operations team exploited the constraints of common management practices to actualize their own and others’ inherent potential and rapidly got ahead of disruptive change for the benefit of the greater good. By exploiting bureaucratic organizations’ inherent weaknesses to meet the universal human need to connect and serve others, be agents of our own destiny and experience mastery, they developed an approach that anyone anywhere can adopt to make a positive difference in the face of adversity.

Pride of Purpose

Succeeding with innovation means change, and change requires courage. The courage to act in the face of fear, to not be stopped by failure or public opinion, in pursuit of a higher goal or purpose. To inspire courage, this purpose needs to be noble and honorable. Without it, people will not believe that what needs to be done is worth the effort and risk. It also needs to evoke a sense of belonging, so that people can feel good about their participation and contribution. This requires trust, the confidence that each has the other’s back regardless of the situation faced.

Identifying and clearly articulating a higher purpose that compels people to commit, think and behave differently is hard. The reason is, whereas the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of an organization or project can be expressed in rational terms, ‘why’ the organization or project exists and believes that ‘what’ it does matters is inherently emotional. This aspect is driven by the limbic system, a part of our brain that is involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory, but not language. It is this biological inability to verbalize the reasons we love something or do what feels right that causes the winning of hearts before minds to be difficult.

Yet doing so matters. Inspired by a Steve Jobs quote, it starts by asking a version of this empowering question: “What makes our heart sing?” or “What made the heart of our organization’s founder sing?” Next, “Who do we do that for?”; “What are the obstacles they face in achieving what matters to them?”; and “How does what we do for them improve their life?” The resulting clarity of purpose drives conviction and perseverance. When we believe in what we do, our words come across as authentic and our actions exude passion. It is this that builds relationships and trust.

For №15 Squadron’s commander, it was a contextualization of the RAF Regiment’s founding purpose: enabling air operations to continue unhindered and protecting the lives of the 30,000 men and women on KAF, as well as their nations’ assets, so that they could go about their daily business with relative peace of mind. If 15 Squadron could achieve that by denying, deterring or disrupting the Taliban’s ability to fire rockets onto the base, they could return home at the end of their tour with the RAF Regiment’s reputation held high and a deep sense of pride. Crucially, not only could 15 Squadron rally around this higher purpose, but everyone based at KAF: there was a shared interest in the collective self-defense of the airfield.

Entrenched Boundaries to Success

For any organization to survive and thrive in a competitive and risk-filled world, it needs to do at least three things. First, it needs to focus on a sizeable core audience that is willing to pay for overcoming the hurdles faced to achieve their goals or aspirations. It is common sense, but as the demise of Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster and others show, not necessarily common practice. Second, it needs to develop a superior emotional connection with its customers through its products or services. Third, it needs to establish an internally coherent management system of processes and controls that reliably and profitably creates, delivers and captures customer value.

In organizations that survive and thrive, this management system evolves over time, replicating and perpetuating what works and modifying or discarding what doesn’t. Combined with a drive to differentiate the organization from its competitors and stand out in the market, this leads to the development of a set of specialized and distinctive resources and capabilities or core competencies. To sustain success reliably and profitably, a system of internal controls, structures and procedures typically grows up around it. Although beneficial in a stable and predictable environment, when conditions in the business environment become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, these bureaucratic management systems show their dark side.

For example, as organizations develop core competencies that improve performance in the immediate term, the underpinning pattern of activities and routines turn into habits through efforts to sustain the system and build coherence. This means that deliberate actions increasingly become automatic actions that require little to no conscious thought. Although this saves time and mental effort, the order and predictability it brings creates a feeling of safety and comfort that stops people from critically questioning existing practices. Particularly when things are going well, it is easy to assume that they will continue to go well. This breeds complacency and a willful blindness to signals of change, which leads to future failure. This is what got companies like Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Nokia, Sears, Tower Records and many others into trouble when new competitors and technologies shifted customer preferences and changed ecosystems.

Influenced by internal politics and social norms to conform and fit in, a cultural preference for the familiar and tried-and-tested becomes ingrained as well, rather than a desire to explore the new and nascent. This explains why Kodak, in its quest to protect its film-based business model, missed opportunities in digital photography, a technology that, ironically, it invented. Similarly, it explains why Licensed Taxi Drivers in London were stunned and shocked by the suggestion to scrap “The Knowledge” test, a license exam covering 320 routes, 25,000 streets and 20,000 places of public interest, to remain competitive in a world of GPS navigation and popular app-based private hire firms such as Lyft and Uber.

Traditional management systems reinforce these behaviors through functional structures, multilevel approvals, performance measures, and incentives geared to increasing efficiency and reducing business risk. These also have the effect of increasing the distance between decision-makers at the top and the frontline where emerging threats and opportunities are experienced first, thereby reducing the perceived urgency of the need for change. Further, given the assumption of external stability and predictability, available resources are typically allocated on a calendar-basis to planned activities, leaving few if any available for the unplanned or unplannable. This makes such organizations vulnerable to disruption: digital innovations, globalization and shifting customer behaviors will create far more new possibilities than that there will be past events that repeat themselves.

Know Where to Look

In these systemic disadvantages resided the opportunity that the officer commanding 15 Squadron and his operations team decided to exploit to address the Taliban’s rocket attacks.

When available people and assets are allocated to activities through multilevel approvals, slack emerges in the system as it takes time to approve and release resources. Even when resources have been allocated, they are not always immediately utilized or for the full duration planned. Reasons for this can be logistics, other required tasks awaiting completion, or unforeseen events. Further, maximum utilization of allocated resources is not always required to accomplish desired outcomes. Taken together, these effects create waiting or idle time and thus residual capacity in the system.

№15 Squadron’s commander was no stranger to this. In the military, “standby to standby” and “hurry up and wait” are part of daily life. Being told to be ready to receive marching orders, forced to quickly complete a task, or arrive at a specific destination by a certain time, and then waiting for something (or nothing!) to happen, are regular occurrences. On an airfield with 30,000 personnel, billions of dollars of assets, four hundred aircraft, and reach-back to decision makers and capabilities in 42 home countries, it meant the residual capacity was potentially huge.

A key challenge was to identify what capabilities 15 Squadron would require to deny, deter or disrupt the Taliban from firing rockets at the airfield. It also meant discovering what residual capabilities existed at KAF and how these could be tapped into. Given the Taliban’s unpredictability and high mobility, as well as the constant flux of myriad U.S. and NATO activities and operations on- and off-base, this meant entering the realm of “unknown unknowns.” Navigating such complex environments, a challenge faced by many leaders and innovators in contemporary business, requires not only a clear and compelling purpose that acts as a directional beacon and inspires people to unite behind. It also demands an experimental mode of operating, one that allows the path forward to be revealed through probing, sensing, and responding.

Residual Capacity as a Force Multiplier

№15 Squadron’s commanding officer knew what he needed to achieve to safeguard the lives and assets on KAF, but he didn’t have sufficient resources to do it. With a low priority for resource, any additional capabilities would not be forthcoming through formal resource planning. He would have to work around it and become resourceful.

A consequence of idle time or “standby to standby” and “hurry up and wait” is that it makes people feel bored and disengaged. According to a recent Gallup poll, this is a major chronic problem within organizations: a staggering 87% of employees worldwide feel “actively disengaged” or “not engaged”. No one joins an organization to feel that way, which is why in many organizations productivity and quality are unnecessarily low and staff turnover relatively high. Gallup estimates that the former represents a loss worth $450–550 billion each year in the U.S. alone.

People are naturally inclined to be self-determined, to master something challenging, and to make a valued contribution towards a shared purpose. It’s what naturally leads to innovation, better performance and greater satisfaction. Unleashing people’s full potential starts by becoming more curious as a leader, innovator or change agent. That is, developing a genuine interest in others by stepping into their shoes and looking at the world through their eyes to see what matters to them. It’s about satisfying deep basic human desires: everyone wants to feel important, know that what they do matters, is appreciated, and feel proud about it. When they’re waiting for nothing to happen, they’re denied this.

By attending formal meetings, walking around KAF, cold calling units and showing interest in their operations, the Commander of №7 Force Protection Wing and №15 Squadron quickly built personal relationships across the base. At the same time, they learned, for example, which units were being held in reserve and getting bored, which ones were burning holes in the sky waiting to be tasked, but also which units they could serve.

Through networking outward, they engaged early on with the officer commanding the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder Company, an elite air assault force within the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. At any one time, a quarter of his company was assigned as an aerial quick reaction force, ready to fly anywhere in Kandahar Province on a 20-minute notice. Another quarter was training and waiting to go on high-alert. The remainder were deployed on combat operations in another province. However, as the quick reaction force was not often alerted, his men were in danger of becoming underutilized. Therefore, when №15’s squadron leader asked him for help and to jointly plan missions to counter the Taliban rocket attacks, he accepted the offer. It was an opportunity to keep the men waiting to go on high-alert sharp and meaningfully employed while doing missions that were helpful to everyone on the airfield.

Initially, Pathfinder Company’s commitment was limited to four forward air controllers, highly trained specialists who provide a vital link between air assets and ground forces, joining 15 Squadron on foot patrols off base. With aircraft always attached due to their mission, and access to dog teams, USAF intelligence personnel, explosive ordnance disposal and other U.S. agencies on KAF, this commitment grew significantly over time with interpersonal trust. These joint missions also gave Pathfinder Company the benefit of building greater unit cohesion between its different elements. Having them repeatedly work together on actual missions strengthened interoperability and thus enhanced the unit’s effectiveness on quick reaction force missions.

War, like economies, markets and society, is an example of a complex adaptive system. It consists of autonomous organizations, units and individuals who constantly interact with one another and with the environment, thereby endlessly and irreversibly changing the situation in unpredictable ways. That means, any coherent behavior emerges from competitive and cooperative interactions, which make certain kinds of next steps feasible, the “adjacent possible”, but countless others not.

Having the Pathfinder forward air controllers attached to their foot patrols created new possibilities for 15 Squadron. Unlike before, patrols could now talk directly with aircraft overhead. For pilots and aircrews of the U.S. Air Force’s 451st Air Expeditionary Wing (451st AEW), based at KAF and tasked with providing airpower presence in Southern Afghanistan, this created a human connection. It enabled them to hear first-hand what troops on the ground were experiencing. In contrast with instructions from an operator in a distant command post, this inspired them to go out of their way and do far more. For example, when pilots flying the A-10 “Warthog”, a single-seat aircraft designed for close air support of friendly ground troops, learned of 15 Squadron’s mission, they worked with KAF air traffic control to shift their holding pattern to provide nearly constant overhead cover. Instead of burning holes in the sky above an empty desert, waiting hours for a “troops in contact” call that might not come, this enabled the A-10 pilots to purposefully support 15 Squadron in the meantime and provide much needed capacity to protect the base.

The presence of the forward air controllers not only created new possibilities for 15 Squadron. Indirectly, it benefitted intelligence analysts back in the U.S. With a limited indigenous ‘eye in the sky’ capability, 15 Squadron could not locate and track the Taliban indirect fire teams everywhere. By developing personal relationships within the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) component of the 451st AEW, whose assets were constantly flying all over Southern Afghanistan, they hoped to see more activity over a greater area. Through a request to use the residual capacity of ISR assets on their approach to landing at KAF to look in key priority areas, 15 Squadron and the ISR crews got to know each other better. Consequently, 15 Squadron learned that aircraft often came back with 30 minutes’ diversion fuel in case weather conditions forced them to land at an alternative air base. When there was no need to divert, crews were happy to use this spare fuel in support of airfield defense. This support came with an aerial data link to analysts at KAF, who could forewarn 15 Squadron’s foot patrols in real-time of suspicious individuals up ahead but also suspected improvised explosive devices. Sometimes, however, the objects the analysts observed on the video link from the aircraft, turned out to be harmless. To help the analyst, the ground troops would take digital photos and share these via the aerial link. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this intelligence was also relayed to the U.S. where a larger team of analysts looked at the same data feeds. For them, the photos were an unexpected yet welcome opportunity to hone and refine their analysis capability, including the training of new analysts.

What these examples show is that, when you ask someone for help, you not only help yourself, but you also give the other the opportunity to fulfil their deep human desire to bond and be of service. It creates a ripple effect and enhances the success of others. As a leader, innovator or change agent, this means that you need to get out of your office, identify people out there who can help you; be humble and ask for their help; model that behavior so that it inspires others to do likewise; and be willing to help others yourself.

Further, using the residual capacity inherent in the system was never detrimental to primary missions: whenever duty called, support was withdrawn, and the residual capacity disappeared. In the meantime, it acted as a force multiplier and created significant value in more than one way.

Probe Forward Together

Underlying common theories of organization and management is a mass manufacturing mindset that can trace its origin to the industrial age. Given the high costs of building factories and setting up production lines, it made sense at the time to invest in scale and crank out as many units as possible to generate a satisfactory return on investment. With competitors doing likewise, and demand outstripping supply, it created the perception of market stability, predictability and control. Strategy thus became a rational problem-solving process to maximize profits in which higher management levels carefully created detailed plans that were then cascaded down to an execution factory.

This mechanistic way of thinking is still deeply ingrained in contemporary management thinking. However, the enormous economic, social and technological advancement it generated in the past century has created a complex, dynamic, uncertain and highly interconnected global environment. New competitors emerge when and where they are least expected, exploiting the speed, power and low cost of digital technologies. Customers have more choices than ever before, they can easily switch and use products in unpredictable ways. Under these conditions, the assumptions underpinning traditional management are no longer valid.

Navigating environments that endlessly and irreversibly change in unpredictable ways requires a clear and compelling purpose that acts as a directional beacon and aligns stakeholders’ interests. People act on emotion. It also demands an experimental mode of operating, one that allows the path forward to be revealed through probing, sensing, and responding.

To this end, №15 Squadron’s commander organized bi-weekly “Joint Effects Meetings”, or JEMs, to which all stakeholders who had met through networking were personally invited. These decentralized and open meetings provided 15 Squadron’s operations team with the opportunity to share what had been achieved to date, the scale of emerging challenges, initial ideas for responding to these but also the unknown unknowns they needed help with. For the other stakeholders, most of whom worked for other commands based at KAF, it provided a discretionary opportunity to be engaged in the defense of the airfield.

By bringing a multitude of different units from across KAF together through the JEMs, united by a shared purpose, an informal team-of-teams was created. With each team bringing different information, experiences and cultural perspectives to the table, not only did it create a richer shared situational understanding but also a greater diversity of new ideas. By freely discussing these ideas from multiple angles, and testing some in the field, more robust solutions were rapidly created. Combined with most participants having a rank of captain and below, and therefore close to frontline realities, the JEMs empowered them to seamlessly react with speed and autonomy as the Taliban indirect fire teams changed their tactics. The freedom to experiment granted by the Commander of №7 Force Protection Wing, the top-cover he provided and the trust he placed in the 15 Squadron Operations Team were critical enablers of the JEM process.

These meetings generated a huge amount of resources and capabilities, far more than №15’s squadron leader ever anticipated being available, but also many adjacent possibilities through lateral bonds. The resulting force and fluid adaptability led to the Taliban indirect fire teams being pushed further and further away from the airfield. Although their rocket attacks didn’t stop, they were reduced by half and became increasingly more inaccurate, often missing the airfield completely. To bridge the greater distance, the Taliban also had to fire the rockets at a higher trajectory, which triggered KAF’s early warning system and thus gave personnel more time to take precautionary measures.

Feedback and Praise

The operations that 15 Squadron conducted to deny, deter and disrupt the Taliban from firing rockets at the airfield lasted one to two weeks. When foot patrols returned to KAF, tired, hungry and covered in mud and dust, the troops would go and clean their weapons, sort their administration and have something to eat. The command team, however, would jump straight into a Land Rover and drive around the airfield to each of the units that had supported them during the operation. With their patrol report at hand, and still covered in grime and grit from being out on the ground, they would show the pilots, operators and analysts the difference their actions had made and express their appreciation. This commitment to provide feedback and praise in person strengthened human connections, and motivated the units to offer even more support. As soon as 15 Squadron’s command team started doing these debriefings regularly, the amount of support offered became overwhelming. Now and then, offers had to be turned down because 15 Squadron couldn’t meaningfully use the level of resource offered.

Everyone has an innate psychological need to connect and feel valued by others, to make their own choices and feel competent. Positive performance feedback, both one’s own and by others, is key to this and enhances intrinsic motivation. By showing the difference specific actions had made in personal debriefings, 15 Squadron’s command team enabled individuals to see for themselves the impact of their decisions. As they had made these of their own volition, rather than undertaken out of duty and obligation, the results conferred a greater sense of connection to others, autonomy and mastery. It made their actions feel more meaningful, which energized them to provide even more support. The praise by 15 Squadron’s command team, signifying the value of their efforts, reinforced their intrinsic motivation further. However, feedback and praise for units’ support of 15 Squadron’s missions did not only come laterally, but also from the top down.

From the beginning, №15’s squadron leader had kept the Commander of №7 Force Protection Wing informed of his plans, the support provided by units across KAF and the results achieved. In turn, his commander had regularly briefed the Commander of Kandahar Airfield (COMKAF), a U.S. Air Force brigadier general, about ongoing operations and progress made. Remarkably, most of the residual capacity 15 Squadron exploited was not part of COMKAF’s chain of command. It was under the command of the Regional Commander South, a two-star U.S. Army general, who was effectively a tenant on KAF. COMKAF’s own organization was under-resourced for its broader mission of running the airbase and depended on the willingness of the 42 NATO members and allies on the base to commit resources. To maintain and strengthen these partnerships, it was important for COMKAF to ensure that each nation knew that their contributions were not only welcome but greatly appreciated. Therefore, COMKAF regularly visited all units on the base, making it a point to get to know their commanders but also meet with individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and contractors. Both in public and private, COMKAF would talk about how much units had accomplished and express his pride in them and their efforts. Through this route COMKAF also praised them for their support in defending the airfield against ground attacks by the Taliban. Like №15’s squadron leader experienced, it quickly became apparent to COMKAF that many didn’t receive praise often, but when they did, it energized them to contribute more.

Unleash people’s full potential

We all have an innate psychological desire to connect with others and leave a mark on the world. Common management systems, geared to increase efficiency through centralized control at scale, have a deeply entrenched habit of getting in the way of fulfilling these universal human needs. The authoritative, formalized and utilitarian nature of these management systems dehumanizes people, treating them as human resources, and creates social distance through bureaucratic lattices. As a result, tribal behaviors and parochial interests emerge, while senses of oneness and caring disappear. Further, by vesting decision making authority in those removed from frontline realities and increasing distance and power of an ever-smaller cadre with the scale of the decision, thereby slowing responses and making these vulnerable to hubris, myopia and bias, the larger the risk of strategic disruption. At the same time, it shrinks the incentive for people further down the organization to dream, show initiative and contribute wholeheartedly.

Even though the speed, complexity and unpredictability of business environments have made traditional management practices obsolete, bureaucracy is here to stay. It is familiar for millions of managers, many have vested interests in perpetuating it, and dismantling it without killing the business is incredibly difficult.

Rather than accepting these systemic constraints, 15 Squadron exploited the inherent residual capabilities for the benefit of the many. Their approach to getting ahead of disruptive change was deeply human: show genuine interest in others to understand what matters to them, give people the opportunity to feel important, and show that what they do matters and is appreciated. It created trust and unleashed unimaginable levels of engagement, initiative and commitment.

We are all human. We’re wired to do this. It just takes courage.

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Arnoud Franken

Helping leaders to accelerate meaningful change | Senior Consultant, Strategic Change Leadership | Professor | Keynote Speaker