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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Risk by General Stanley McChrystal and Anna Butrico



I finished this book in April 2023. I recommend this book 6/10.

Interesting book on mitigating risk. Fascinating examples from war situations to the government's reaction to COVID-19.

Get your copy here.

My notes and thoughts:

  • P11. I have identified ten dimensions of control present in every organization, typically at varying levels of effectiveness, that can be monitored and adjusted to maintain a healthy Risk Immune System.

    • Communication: How we exchange information with others.

    • Narrative: How we tell others about who we are and what we do.

    • Structure: How we design our organization and processes.

    • Technology: How we apply machinery, equipment, resources, and know-how.

    • Diversity: How we leverage a range of perspectives and abilities.

    • Bias: How the assumptions we have about the world influence us.

    • Action: How we overcome inertia or resistance to drive our response.

    • Timing: How when we act affects the effectiveness of our response.

    • Adaptability: How we respond to changing risks and environments.

    • Leadership: How we direct and inspire the overall Risk Immune System.

  • P29. So, the likelihood that Operation Eagle Claw would rescue our hostages was 90 percent—right? No, not even close. It is crucial to remember that because every step in the operation is essential to the whole, every step must succeed. And even if the realistic probability of the force's completing each step was 90 percent (or .9), the overall probability Eagle Claw would succeed was not 90 percent. In actuality, it was: .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 = .348.

  • P30. The case of Eagle Claw, like most difficult decisions, was even more complex than might be readily apparent. When President Carter went into the decision-making process, he had just experienced five months of diplomatic impasse. He was under clear pressure that a failure to resolve the hostage crisis would likely doom his chances of reelection in November. Naturally, his assessment of risk to the mission was going to account for likely political costs of inaction. The military leaders had developed their complicated plan over several months and after extensive consideration, felt they had crafted not the best plan, but the only plan that would work. From the cheap seats, it is easy to find fault with the plan crafted and the decision made—until you've been in the position of the people involved. Then it looks and feels different.

  • P36. Of course, that's exactly what happened to us. In the hectic preparation of defenses and positioning of units as the enemy advanced, the right hand failed to communicate with the left, gaps remained open (even though we'd positioned materials to close them), and the enemy drove past us unimpeded. We'd planned carefully, worked assiduously—and assumed stupidly. Now we lost completely.

  • P37. Indeed the success of any organization in its defense—depends on the multifaceted ability to Detect the enemy, Assess its strengths, and route of march. Respond with effective fires, and learn enough in the process to prepare for subsequent attacks. This requires the function and interaction of a series of factors, or capabilities, that includes things as obvious as communication and technology, as well as more discreet factors, like diversity and narrative, in order to produce a successful response.

  • P54. Communication allows the Risk Immune System to work. Get this right, or we fail.

  • P70. When our narrative is misaligned with our purpose, values, or strategy, we invite risk into our organization.

  • P101. Diversity can be powerful strength for any organization and the difference between winning and losing. The more you aim for diversity in the perspectives you seek and incorporate, the stronger your Risk Immune System becomes.

  • P118. Diversity isn't a nice-to-do; it's a need-to-do. Different perspectives and skills increase our effectiveness. Achieving diversity requires deliberate action.

  • P125. After much reflection, on a morning in 2017. I took a portrait of Lee off the wall of my study—one that my wife, Annie, had given me when we were first married forty years before—and I placed it into the garbage. Like many other Americans, I found myself face-to-face with the broader question of the Confederacy itself.

  • P171. When thinking about timing, it's often helpful to work backward and identify exactly when your organization would like to see the impact of actions. Teams should then zoom out to determine when to execute the appropriate response. This way of thinking can challenge organizations to recognize the lag between decisions and execution—to speed up reactive processes and present needles delay. Oftentimes, we make decisions without enough data—firing from the hip to act when the time isn't right—which I don't recommend. Conversely, we must not wait until we have all the information available to make decisions and execute our responses because when we do, the pandemic has already spread, the hurricane has already made landfall, and the competition has lapped your car.

  • P199. So how does a good leader apply the indispensable factor of leadership? Leaders must determine for the context of the situation, assess what's needed, and drive adjustments for each Risk Control Factor:

    • Communication.

    • Narrative.

    • Structure.

    • Technology.

    • Diversity.

    • Bias.

    • Action.

    • Timing.

    • Adaptability.

    • Leadership.

  • P201. "If three people are responsible for feeding the dog—the dog is going to starve." If you're not sure who's responsible, it's time to figure it out. If you're a leader, and unless you can confirm others have the responsibility—you probably need to assume you do.

  • P214. Burton led the session—which reminded me of the Operations & Intelligence video teleconference that had been so critical to my Special Operations Task Force in Iraq—and she drove a disciplined agenda. The briefer would appear on the screen when it was their turn to communicate updates about the past and upcoming twenty-four hours and report on needs for resources. As the participants listened to the briefs, they connected and collaborated in real-time with other stakeholders, cut deals, and coordinated with other team members. At the end of each CRF, Burton would present a list of tasks for each group that had to be completed by the next CRF—the mayor's team relentlessly tracked those action items. Walsh typically congratulated the team on progress reported in meetings, but he was stern and exacting when it came to what must still be done. He would routinely remind the team about the most important aspect of their mission, often invoking his widowed mother as an example of those the city must keep in mind as policies were set and work got done. With steady pressure, he guided his staff to resist the inertia of conducting "business as usual"—trading in bureaucratic churn for fast, declarative action in response to a virus that wouldn't wait. He'd end his CRFs with a five-word phrase of encouragement: "Let's kick some ass today."

  • P215. To combat COVID-19, Mayor Walsh formed eight priority groups to tackle the eight primary strategies that would drive the city's crisis response efforts—which ranged from coordinating the public health response to supporting Boston's schoolchildren and their families to soliciting and distributing PPE. This arrangement forced teams to be diverse—in some priority groups, people who typically didn't work together were assembled to actively engage on a shared problem. These groups would meet to prepare their briefs, and in doing so, they would identify gaps in one another's plans. Provide solutions to tough problems, and connect their teams to resources. Regardless of whether or not these groups had worked together before, they'd have to come together to provide a unified message during the day's CRF.

  • P236. Symptoms to solutions.

  • P244. Solutions—Things we can do:

    • Assumptions check

    • Risk review

    • Risk alignment check

    • Gab analysis

    • Snap assessments

    • Communications check

    • Tabletop exercise

    • War game (or functional exercise)

    • Red teaming

    • pre-mortem

    • After-action review


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