Gareth Tennant Interview
Interview by Justin Small
GARETH TENNANT IS A FORMER HEAD OF INTELLIGENCE FOR THE ROYAL MARINES, WHO OVER AN EXTENSIVE CAREER HAS SPECIALISED IN INTELLIGENCE, SURVEILLANCE AND RECONNAISSANCE OPERATIONS. HAVING LEARNT AND HONED HIS TRADE IN SOME OF THE WORLDS TOUGHEST AND MOST COMPLEX ENVIRONMENTS FROM COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN TO TRACKING PIRATES IN SOMALIA, HE NOW SUPPORTS BUSINESS LEADERS, GOVERNMENTS AND SECURITY SERVICES IN THE ART OF DECISION MAKING IN COMPLEX ENVIRONMENTS.
JUSTIN Tell us a little by what yourself, your background and what you currently do with your company?
GARETH I joined the Royal Marines in 2006. The Royal Marines is a fairly elite part of the Royal Navy. It’s the commando forces, and their main force is the 3 Commando Brigade. I went into close combat, which was what I wanted to do since I was a boy, and I saw service in Afghanistan and various other places. And then I ended up being taught enough to specialise in maritime counter-piracy, counterterrorism and counter smuggling. At around the time of the Somali pirates crisis. I did several deployments out to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and did a lot of counter-piracy work. And it was while I was doing that, that I saw the difference between the way we were doing operations in Afghanistan, and the way we were doing operations in counter-piracy. And what was very stark to me was that the intelligence-led operations were far more successful. Because when you’re not focused in on the target, you’re relying far more on luck. It really piqued my interest in how all that worked, because up until that point I had been the operator at the front end, a user of intelligence, but actually starting to do these operations, I realised how important it was that I was feeding information in as well. Then a few years later I was given the opportunity to specialise in intelligence and reconnaissance, and I spent about eight months at RAF Waddington, which is the home of the RAF surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. And I got a vast amount of exposure to U.S. and U.K. intelligence collection capabilities. I specialised in that and I took a lot of those lessons back to the Royal Marines, where I ended up being the Head of Intelligence for 3 Commando Brigade, using those skills and knowledge of the wider process to help improve 3 Commando Brigade.
I left the military two years ago. Since then I have started my company Decision Advantage and through it I’ve been helping organisations make sense of complexity in uncertain dynamic situations in order to allow them to make the best decisions with the information available, which is what I did in the military. That’s what intelligence is really. At Decision Advantage we try to provide competitive advantage by focusing on people’s ability to manage decision making. It clearly has huge links to strategy. So the parallels between the military and security sectors and the commercial sector are very interesting to me because I am a Royal Marine. For the moment I’m straddling support to the defence sector and wider support to commercial organizations with a variety of training, workshops, keynote speeches, and consultancy.
JUSTIN Making sense of complexity - a really great definition. What does that mean commercially? What is the need of the companies you go into?
GARETH. I think everybody is now in a world of uncertainty. So there isn’t a specific sector where there’s trouble brewing. I think everybody is now facing a situation where the environment they’re operating in no matter what sector you’re actually in, is dynamic and things are changing faster than we can understand and control. And the amount of information and data available is growing exponentially. And so I think there is just a broad sense of losing control. What I think is quite interesting is the companies that are being successful are companies that know where to find data, how to exploit it and what to do with it. So the big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix etc - they’re not successful because they’ve got access to data - but because they know what to do with it. Other companies that are being successful are companies that are disrupting markets. A really interesting analogy is that in the industrial era, which most organizations were founded in the logic of that era, the focus was around the analogy of a company being a machine. A well oiled, organised, structured machine with a clear structure, a clear process, where it is all about efficiency. The competitive advantage, up until very recently, has been derived from being able to do things better, cheaper, and quicker than your competitors. I think now we need to use the analogy of organic systems rather than mechanical ones, because the environment that the organizations are operating in is changing at speed. You have to be far more interactive and far more evolutionary in your development, which means much flatter structures devolving responsibility for decision making - which doesn’t come naturally. It’s one of the parallels I found in the military. The military is clearly a very hierarchical organisation with fixed ranks, fixed organisational structures - and discipline is one of the over-arching pinnacles of how it works. So to come up against this rapidly changing environment that’s based around globalisation, the connectivity of people and things, has been a really hard lesson for the military. Understanding complexity is what the military has always done, that’s what conflict is. It’s a complex environment where some of the people that you’re trying to affect are trying to deceive you, some are trying to actively disrupt you and some of them are just people in the environment that have no common cause with what you’re doing. So you’re fighting complexity, and that’s something we’re quite comfortable with.
JUSTIN; Would you say that the military is quite a good test case for a transformation into this more organic structure that allows more outside-in thinking and draws more on systems thinking feedback loops, constantly changing from the inside? Or do they, because of what the military does, have to have more structure because of the necessary control elements?
GARETH: That’s a very interesting question. Militaries or Government have the advantage of not having to make profit, so the military is never going to go out of business. So they can make mistakes and it doesn’t wind up with a company going bankrupt or insolvent. So they don’t necessarily notice that they are making mistakes. But what that also allows is they’ve got more time to trial and experiment. A company that is for-profit is constantly fighting, they’re constantly in their operational environment having to compete in whatever service or sector they’re in. Therefore taking time out to reflect, time out to train, time out to understand what they’re doing and how they are doing it is difficult because all the time out that you’re taking to do training and reflection is taking capacity away from your day to day operations. Whereas in the military, up until fairly recently, you were on operations or you were not, and when you’re not you were training, thinking about what the next conflict is going to be, and how it could be different to the last one. So there are lots of advantages for the military in terms of having a place to do that.
The disadvantage of course is because you’re not operating you don’t actually know what works. And so there is a process of finding yourself, going on operations and then realising that a lot of the assumptions you’ve made up until now have been wrong and having to very quickly adapt. Having said that, because of globalisation, because of the shift in the relationship between government and society, we’re talking largely now about the breakdown of four geographic states. The Internet has allowed people to share ideas trans-nationally, instantaneously. The military is now starting to think about the world in a slightly different way and look at the fact that we are constantly on operations. So even when we’re training, even when we’re not at war, we are having an effect on the society that we are there to protect, and we’re having an effect on our adversaries and on other actors in the environment. So we’re starting to think far more like commercial entities in terms of being constantly on operations and every action you take has an effect and therefore needs to be built into your strategy.
JUSTIN: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about the military being unable to test their theories. If you look at the military and organisations together, the military has to act, or at least used to, in a very waterfall manner, they do the thinking, then they do the work, find out whether it works or not and then step back to doing further thinking. However, companies now, although they used to be like that, have been forced to be strategically agile (with the small a), having to change what they are doing instantaneously and needing the data to understand what they need to change. Companies that don’t know how to use their data are actually unable to measure their performance quickly enough to change correctly. What you used to do as a company in the past was probably do a years worth of data gathering and then report back to the board. Then six months after that, you’d say ‘This is how your previous year was’ and then the board will say ‘Okay, let’s put a change program in’ and that would take a year, so it would probably be 3 years before you actually change anything in response to the problems you had identified. That was ok before, but now it will probably lead to bankruptcy.
GARETH The key point in what you just said for me was ‘measurement of performance.’ And actually measurement of performance is important because it’s making sure you’re doing things right. But actually more importantly, you have to start measuring effect, asking whether you’re doing the right things. In a measurement of effect, you’re now having to understand how your relationship with the environment and customers and suppliers and all the little elements, and you have to confirm that your assumptions about what you thought you were doing, and what you’re actually doing, are valid.
JUSTIN So in some ways you are constantly challenging the strategy that you’re measuring.
JUSTIN And updating that strategy, hopefully not updating it so much that the strategy disappears and you end up with a completely dynamic non-strategy position.
GARETH Yeah but I think that’s what strategy is. You know, for me the definition of strategy is being able to plan and achieve one or more long term objectives under conditions of uncertainty. What you define as long term is relative. You can have a strategy for how you’re going to get home tonight or you can have a strategy for what you want to accomplish in 5 years time. Time is relative to the problem. What’s important is that it’s about uncertainty because if there wasn’t uncertainty you wouldn’t have a strategy, you’d have a plan. You wouldn’t need strategists, you’d need project managers. You’d just create a Gant chart for a year and then you would be just measuring performance. You’d know when you were reaching the right steps. When what we actually want to do is say, we’ve done this step, has this got us to the right position, are we still going in the right direction, has the market or environment changed? So we’re now into talking about complex problems. The difference between a complicated problem and a complex problem is that with a complicated problem, with enough analysis you can do your diagnostic and work out the solutions. With a complex problem you can’t work out the cause and effect relationship until after the effect. So you’re using hindsight so your tactic changes from analysing your problem and coming up with a solution to coming up with something that you think will work. So you still have to do some analysis but then reviewing, testing and adjusting your approach. If you are accurate with your focusing on data collection, you’ve got good analysts, you understand the environment, you’re still not going to be 100 percent as you can’t be predictive, but you can predict a trend. You can give it a sort of bracketing value add and therefore the amount that you need to adjust and change is going to be much more but that still requires you to have those feedback loops built in so are constantly testing your own assumptions.
JUSTIN That’s interesting in relation to what I would describe as the Inside Outside organisational strategies from the 60s, 70s, and 80s when markets were pretty stable and success was all about efficiencies, cost reductions and economies of scale. Once you got a leading position in a market at that time you kept it by becoming a well oiled machine. But today’s market conditions are completely the opposite - very unstable and dynamically changing from one month to the next with no barriers to entry and no competitive advantage from being big and established. This is when you need an Outside In strategy where you are trying to predict where you need to be in 3 years time as an organisation to compete effectively - and put the change programs in motion to build the capability to make that happen. Much like climbing a mountain - you have getting to the top of the mountain as your ultimate vision, but getting there will mean trying various different paths and constantly readjusting your plans through analysis of the environment.
GARETH I think the analogy of the mountain works very well for describing it because the objective that you’re trying to get to is a set of conditions, a defined place. How you get there, as you say, is completely dependent on what you find in real time, the reality of the environment. So for me, the strategic guidance in that analogy is the compass. It gives you a general bearing or heading but then the reality is the obstacles you meet on the journey, things that you can’t plan for and can’t pass that drive you in a different direction. This doesn’t mean that you’re now wrong, but that you have to adapt your plan and as long as you have that general compass bearing you know that you’re OK going off plan and you can come back on to follow that compass bearing until you get to the top of the mountain. I think that’s the difference between strategy and tactics. Quite often they are used synonymously but incorrectly because tactics is just the employment of capability in real time. Tactical employment is very important as you are finding those obstacles on your journey. You need people that are trained and able to cope with the challenges that they face. But you also need that strategic direction to notice and understand that as people are doing whatever they need to do to overcome the challenges, we still need to know where they are in regards to that compass bearing, which direction they are now facing and realigning if necessary. Have they gone off path to deal with this obstacle and do they need guiding back on?
In the military, that’s what we call centralised command but decentralised execution, or Mission Command. And it’s the idea that everybody knows what the mission is and we know what the intent of the commander is, but the plan you’ve come up with is never actually going to happen. I think it was Eisenhower that said ‘I hate plans, but I really value planning’. I’m paraphrasing but the point is that by understanding what you are likely to see, by understanding what you think you’re going to come up against, and having that collective vision, when you come up against challenges, people know what the overall intent is and can make their own decisions to help you get there. And that whole process, bringing it back to the military, comes out of the Napoleonic era, where for the first time we were dealing with military forces so large that they couldn’t just be organised. It was the innovations of the early 1800’s that devised this because up until that period the military was small and you could ride around on horses to deliver messages, and there were fixed drills, and fixed things that you did, and all the General had to do was tell the right unit to do the right things at the right time.
What they realised was that armies were getting so large, that messages were taking too long and the situation was changing too quickly, so they needed to allow people to make their own decisions based on the changing environment. It started with the Prussians, who had this idea that a decision, even if it’s the wrong decision, is better than no decision at all. The soldiers that were standing waiting for orders but getting killed whilst they were waiting, were not adding to the fight. So even if they make the wrong decision, if they are doing something, it’s better than nothing. So your default position is to be empowering people. To try and make the right decisions, to understand what the overall goal is.
JUSTIN That’s what I would call freedom within a framework - which is a concept that comes from Service Design where you give the ‘service actors’ the freedom to co-create a service with the customer within a set of guidelines that guarantee an overall consistency, but don’t robotise the delivery of the service which would lead to it being standardised and therefore vanilla.
GARETH Yes absolutely. That’s what we in the military call mission command. The difficulty now of course is that as the environment changes so much faster, trying to have a collective understanding of what that vision is and what that intent is (a framework of guidelines), is very very difficult. Finding the right balance and having enough coordination and command to enable the organisation to act as one body working to one goal, but with enough flexibility to allow people to make their own decisions, is really really difficult. But the thing that makes that easier is very very good communication, so you can bounce information up and down, laterally across the organisation, for everybody else to understand on a high level what challenges other people are going through. But more importantly it’s knowing how to turn information into intelligence. It’s knowing what to focus on.
JUSTIN It is very interesting how similar and connected the current environments that both the military and today’s organisations are working in - and how much of what you talk about around military strategy has parallels in commercial strategy. This shouldn’t be a surprise I guess as strategy, the word and the practice was born in the military - but it seems to me that a few decades ago both worked on quite well understood and pre-agreed set rules of engagement - but now everything is in flux. Russia has torn up the rules of the game in relation to the military and warfare, and tiny tech start ups with no assets are upending entire industries from their bedrooms.
GARETH Strategy comes from the Greek ‘way of warfare’. If you go right back, it comes from the idea of armies facing off on a battlefield. That’s why we talk about battlefields - there were fields outside of villages that you were going to fight over, and a lot of our language comes from that. For example, victory or trophies - the tropaeum was a pile of dead bodies and weapons that was set alight at the end of the battle. It was a clear, definitive victory. And we still talk about winning and losing in the western way of war. Eastern philosophies don’t necessarily talk about winning and losing, especially Central Asian military philosophies, where their doctrine comes from the idea of a constant fight. And if you think about our operations in Afghanistan over the last 15 years, there’s been an evolving enemy, and although we are tactically winning, in terms of attrition (we’re taking more of them off the battlefield than they are taking us off the battlefield) - ideologically, because in our enemy’s minds it’s a constant battle, there is no winning, there is no decisive moment, and we’re struggling with that. So that’s where our philosophy comes from. I’ve mentioned already the Mission Command idea coming out of the Prussian development and the Napoleonic war. And then from that, the actual mechanism of fighting comes out of first and second world war development, where we went from attrition, because it was about mass, to manoeuvre. The idea of blitzkrieg and manoeuvres warfare comes from the idea that you don’t have to have the largest army, you just need to be able to manoeuvre it quickly against the weakest components of the enemy or adversary. So we talk about their critical vulnerability, and the idea is that you pitch your strength against their weakness. And that’s the idea of asymmetry, that’s exactly what it is. It’s your strength against their weakness. What we’ve now seen in the contemporary environment is this asymmetry where our adversaries are pitching against our constraints. Which is our abilities to fight in the informational fight. So we are physically stronger, we’re physically better organised and better trained, we have more capability, we have more technology. But actually in terms of fighting information war, it’s something the military is quite uncomfortable with. And that comes down to experience and doing it. The value issues of Western values, the idea of things like psychological operations, manipulation of people through information. There are legal issues behind that, there’s ethical and moral issues, that our adversaries don’t necessarily worry about as much. They’re more willing to lie than we are. And arguably that’s also going to be their undoing because our value system which is ultimately going to mean that we win through. Maybe.
JUSTIN That seems like a similar challenge to what manufacturing firms have had to deal with in the last few years. Suddenly, an organisation that has been making products and selling them through third parties has to change the way it does business. It has to turn that product into a service or deliver a virtual version of the product. And with that change comes the need to manage the comms around the services, and constantly improve the customer experience and the support for example. So it’s moving from what was a very simple environment, ‘I make this and I send it out to a shop and alotofpeoplebuyit’-tonow ‘Iputoutaserviceandithasto grow and change constantly to meet the changing consumer’s requirements’ which is just not what products use to have to do. They had a rather slow and definitive innovation cycle. It sounds like the military is almost having to move into this new environment where they have to be constantly thinking about comms and the reaction to comms, where they are almost delivering a brand experience. And once you get into branding everything becomes so complex because brand experience is created in the moment of the individual experiencing what the organisation is trying to deliver - it is a constantly evolving relationship that cannot be entirely controlled or owned by the brand owner. Brand experience exists in a framework within which the brand has minimal control.
GARETH And what’s really interesting about that of course, is with branding and marketing, the origination of those ideas come from the military. So everything like the Mad Men of the 1950s, a lot of the terminology they use comes from their experiences as conscripts into the second world war. But now what that means is the military is going to the commercial advertising, marketing, social media agencies and saying how do we do this better? They have come full circle. And we’re seeing interactions between commercial marketing agencies helping brand the military, not just for recruiting and advertising but also to help with information warfare.
JUSTIN Do you think Russia have that kind of capability already built in? That they, much like an agency, would strategise and plan out a campaign to try to predict how people will react and play off that in real time? Do you think they do that?
GARETH I think they do. I also think sometimes we give them too much credit. The reason Russia is so successful at information operations is because for a long time they’ve been largely uncontested. So they’ve done a lot of things that aren’t very good, but because that’s in and amongst things that they’ve done generally, they’ve managed to be in an uncontested place and they’ve achieved a lot. They’re not necessarily that good, they just throw a lot of weight behind it. But what we’ve started to see now is that they are probably five, six, seven, eight years ahead of us in learning from those operations.
JUSTIN So you’re saying that some of the stuff they do just happens by the fact that they are able to lie, they have that ability to not really care about the consequences which can sometimes turn into a really clever campaign.
GARETH Well I guess it goes back to what I’m saying about complex problems, where you have to test and adjust, and they’re quite inefficient at it but they throw enough weight at it. For example if we look at MH17, the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine, within only a few hours of that incident happening there were 17 different narratives all emanating from Russia about what could have caused the incident, all of which were complete fabrications, but all of which were conflicting with each other. But because there was so much information coming out, it didn’t really matter whether we believed it or not, what it created was this controversy, this idea that there’s more than one argument. They play on the idea that if they lie enough nobody can tell the truth. And they hide the truth in the obscurity of the lies. They don’t care about getting a truthful narrative. They want to hide the truth in the sea of lies. Which is very different from the way the West works where our philosophy and our ethical standpoint on lying is very different.
JUSTIN Trump has learnt a lot from that, and from using conspiracy, trying to give each story a complete opposite narrative every time.
GARETH Yes, and fake news is mainstream now, which is quite scary really. But I think what it shows is that as part of the societal reaction to globalisation and connectivity and the internet and the ability to communicate ideologies - irrespective of geography - that we’re now having to contest ideas and information far more quickly and there are strategies that are emerging that are effective. If you throw something out there that is an obvious lie but it’s so outrageous that it draws all the headlines, you can bury whatever bad news story is coming out that day or you can distract attention from the real issue. And the rise of nationalism, the rise of populism, the rise of fake news, is all a reaction to the overwhelming amount of information that is available and strategies that are emerging that are successful for controlling narratives and controlling stories in that sea of information.
JUSTIN How can the west use strategy to think about this if they want to continue to use their values as the bedrock and not follow the Russians? Especially as this is surely the most complex environment the British Military has ever had to deal with or theorise about.
GARETH I think if I’m going to be positive about it, as at heart I am an optimist. I think the single most powerful weapon we have is our value system. The fact that we’re not willing to lie, the fact that we are focused on helping people, means ultimately we have a particular view of the world that I think is really valuable. Democracy, the ability to allow people to say things that are aggravating or disgusting, is the freedom of open debate. Those value systems are really important and that’s ultimately the strategy that we need to employ. What we’ve got to get better at is linking that ideology, that value system to our tactics. Which means allowing people to react quicker. We’re finding in the military that we don’t have systems in place to allow people to message. So strategic communications has always been seen as something that senior commanders deal with because it’s the national message. But we know with the rise of social media and more informal media outlets, that you can’t have a single voice talking to the mainstream media. What we have to have is voices across the system, across the organisation, all talking to different audiences and therefore in a different way, using different medias to interact with those audiences but all with a common message. So you have to have a an information strategy that links to your overarching strategy. So you need to delegate authority to do that, but we’re not used to that. In the military at the moment there is more comfort in delegating the authority to use physical force than there is in the authority to send out messages and it comes down to risk tolerance, culture and understanding.
JUSTIN The military has historically been allowed by the populace, through the Government, to kill when it needs to kill, to defend when it needs to defend, and therefore that’s something they are used to but they’ve never been expected to communicate, that’s the job of the Government. Does the military not feel that the Government should take that off their hands?
GARETH I don’t think the Government can take it off their hands because we’re now talking about real or near real time communication. We’re talking about reactions to tactical events from the ground, and we talking about engaging with a multitude of different audiences all at the same time. We can’t see it as a non military activity in the same way that if you’re a manufacturer of a product you can’t see communications as something that you give to an advertising agency and they deal with it for you because it’s so intertwined now they all they are part of your strategy. But you’re right. If we take it back to the military, the military has a monopoly on violence in the state. We are given the responsibility and the privilege to hold the
right to use violence to protect society. So the challenge, and it is a real challenge to enable people to be just as professional at delivering physical force but at the same time be able to integrate that with informational force. A good example of this was during the Iraq campaign when it wasn’t uncommon for militia groups to reposition the bodies of dead insurgents to look as if they were praying. They would remove all traces of insurgent activity, the weapons, radios etc and then post pictures online. They would make out the coalition were killing innocent civilians at prayer. Because western militaries aren’t prepared for this sort of psychological ’counter-attack’ they would take days to respond. By which point the story has moved on and the false narrative is already out in the public domain. That’s an example of when we tactically need to be able to communicate quickly so that we don’t lose the initiative.
JUSTIN What’s fascinating for me here is that in this conversation we’ve been straddling both military and commercial strategy and seeing a merging of these very separate entities. It seems to me that commercial strategy over the last few centuries has been very much based on learnings from military strategy - but now, in some ways, both the military and commercial organisations are facing an environment they have never faced before, and both need to change in similar ways. They both need to become more decentralised in order to be able to use to the data they have in real time to react almost instantaneously, but while retaining and very strong purpose and vision to act as the compass for all action.
GARETH Yes, I think that’s right. Intelligence and the ability to act on intelligence as quickly as the situation commands is going be everything in the 21st century.