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Gen. Stanley McChrystal: McChrystal is not a systems thinker


In the wake of President Barack Obama's sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and due to comments in Rolling Stone magazine from McChrystal and his subordinates that were negative and derogatory toward the President and civilian military officers, an April 26, 2010 New York Times article takes on new meaning. Indeed, it should have been a indication to President Obama that he had the wrong man in charge, assuming Obama saw the article. And why is that?
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is not a systems thinker
Gen. Stanley McChrystal 
The article has two titles, reflecting the New York Times' bumbling when it comes to digital media. The page title best for search is "Enemy Lurks in Briefings on Afghan War - PowerPoint - NYTimes.com, and the title on the page itself is the one most referred to: "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint." (As an aside, the best search-oriented title should have been "PowerPoint fails in US Afghanistan Briefing.") The centerpiece of the article is a giant system dynamics causal relationship diagram (presented above) that shows how key factors and actions in Afghanistan are interrelated. The New York Times author apparently does not know that it's a system dynamics model, because she does not refer to it, but to the place the SD model diagram is on: PowerPoint. The article takes off on PowerPoint, while missing the real problem: it's a really a model that can be ran and we can see the graph and statistical outcomes of different decisions. You need a computer and a presentation projector and a place to run the model like the platforms provided by Porio Business Simulations. Then you need to run the model and test different decisions Gen. Stanley McChrystal joked about the diagram Instead of that, this is what happened according to the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller:
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti. "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war," General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
The simple fact that McChrystal didn't understand the slide is why we're not only not winning the war, but not seeing that we should not be in Afghanistan. The seeds of the reasons why are actually in the system dynamics model.   If Gen McChrystal understood systems thinking, and then system dynamics, he would have asked for a computer to run the model,  rather than joke about a picture. If he did, he would have seen a the impact of the part of the model called "Popular Support."  One of the key factors in that variable area is something that is just called "anger" with both the US Government and the Afghan Government. The idea is that by the government helping the economy and infrastructure, this anger is reduced.  But then insurgents destroying that same infrastructure harm this effort.  So what happens if you just took the US Government out of the picture?  In other words, just remove "Coalition Capacity and Priorities", which would cause the elimination of "Coalition Domestic Support" and we remove the factor the Afghan population's reacting to in the model: the United States. The problem with the model is it's designed to show how US and Coalition forces can impact Afghanistan, but then it implies our very existence in the region is pissing some of them off, causing a set of problems that we have to spend money to deal with. If you want to see a one version of a simple type of the same SD diagram that takes you through how the factors are related, here's a model created by Chris Soderquist for the IEE Systems Thinking Blog and Forio Business Simulations and presented in a blog post called "We have met an ally and it is storytelling": If Gen. McChrystal knew systems thinking, and were honest, he'd realize the best course of action is not to be in Afghanistan. Of course, if Gen. McChrystal were a systems thinker, he would not have got himself into the trouble that cost him his job.
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