• Credit: Shutterstock/Olivier Le Moal
     Credit: Shutterstock/Olivier Le Moal

Sponsored: Digital Transformation Insights from Gen. McChrystal

July 15, 2021
Interview by Mark Senell

The digital transformation is no longer simply an enabler—it’s the “trunk of the tree” that provides the foundational structure for everything we do, according to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, USA (Ret.). “It shapes what we are and how we operate.”

Gen. McChrystal speaks from the experience of having led high-level missions and organizations in which technology played a critical role, including his comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and the nation’s premier military counterterrorism force, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Described by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I had ever met,” Gen. McChrystal also commanded the elite 75th Ranger Regiment (a.k.a. the Army Rangers).

In 2011, he founded the McChrystal Group, which advises senior executives on navigating complex change and building stronger teams. In addition, the West Point graduate serves as a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and he sits on the boards of several multinational corporations.

Gen. McChrystal recently sat down with Dynatrace to reflect upon the past, present and future of technology-driven change for the military, business and society. Here are five key observations he had to share:

The digital transformation will only continue to accelerate—but we can’t lose sight of human interaction. Thanks to trends such as massive cloud migrations and a “new virtual workforce” due to the pandemic, government agencies are overcoming both budget and cultural challenges (the latter in the form of “This is the way we’ve always done it” resistance) to fast-forward the digital transformation, Gen. McChrystal said. But we cannot entirely abandon in-person interactions and processes. Leadership, after all, is something that is passed along from a superior to an employee or soldier via hands-on/human-to-human experiences.

“We’ve got to figure out the right balance going forward,” Gen. McChrystal said. “How are we going to keep things that are extraordinarily efficient and, in some cases, more effective, and then balance those with very necessary personal interactions?”

Digital experiences should be about quality, not quantity. Both in the public and private sectors, “Zoom fatigue” has set in with nonstop videoconferences. By the end of the day, you may think that you were busy from start to finish, Gen. McChrystal said, but you actually didn’t get anything done.

That’s why it is important to manage schedules more thoughtfully, with a focus on the quality of discussion/outcomes rather than the number of calls. In many cases, feedback loops elevate the productivity of these conversations. “So you have to think, ‘How am I going to get that feedback?’” he said. “How am I going to get situational awareness of how everyone is doing, as well as how the team is doing in this new, virtual world?”

Government and industry must work more closely together as partners. People in government who need something aren’t collaborating enough with the people who build and sell it, Gen. McChrystal said. In the past, federal agencies developed technology advancements and then private industry adopted those. Today, the opposite is true. “The government is often running behind the commercial sector, trying to get what fell off the truck to see if we can pick up a piece,” Gen. McChrystal said. “It’s got to be tighter than ever before. We’ve got a bad habit of being separated into little islands. That’s not good for a coherent defense.”

When it comes to cyber threats, transparency is mission-critical. In a ransomware attack, for example, too many organizations would rather pay the ransom and keep it quiet. But we can’t afford to do this anymore, Gen. McChrystal said. “There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we share information. We’re going to have to share more about security. This is a recognition that the real world is seamless, and we’re talking about defending the United States. When a pipeline gets shut down due to ransomware and it impacts our ability to distribute fuel, it impacts the economy. That’s a strategic issue, not strictly a commercial one.”

We must reach a higher state of observability to better leverage data. The volume and velocity of data will only continue to surge. In response, we have to deploy automation and intelligence-generating tools, which allow us to effectively observe and analyze data, and then share insights from it. “By connecting and sharing this data, we’re going to understand things that we now do not understand,” Gen. McChrystal said. “We’re going to be able to take actions as trends start to occur. With the ability to pull massive amounts of data together, you can see trends. You can see realities.”

In conclusion, it’s about working together as a cohesive whole—and embracing rapid change even if it means taking on an acceptable level of risk.

“Leadership can get a bit too cautious and conservative,” Gen. McChrystal said. “When change needs to happen—when we need to take a new direction—there’s a reluctance sometimes to do it. That’s why I say you’ve got to play like it’s your last game. You owe it to the mission. Most often, your instincts will be good. The world is changing, and, in government, we have to make changes fast.”

Check out the full interview with Gen. McChrystal on “Reinventing to Achieve Digital Transformation in the U.S. Government” here.


Mark Senell is vice president, federal, Dynatrace.

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