Lessons must be learned

Agincourt. A village in France and a battle, immortalised by Shakespeare, that is known to all Englishmen. It stands in the pantheon of popular culture, alongside the Battle of Britain, as one of England’s greatest military victories.

Azincourt or Agincourt

Azincourt or Agincourt

It was a victory by a small but determined force against a superior but over arrogant foreigner. It was a “backs against the wall” fight for survival, which the English seem to relish, and embodied what would later be known as the “bull dog spirit”.

Agincourt, fought in 1415 came at the back end of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The English forces, utilising the devastating fire power of the long bow, dominated the French for almost a hundred years, despite the latter’s numerical superiority and internal lines of communication.

The Battle of Crecy

The Battle of Crecy

In order to put this in context you need to understand the chronology of the three main battles. In 1346 the English army, lead by Edward III, defeated a superior French army at Crecy using the novel tactics of massed bowmen behind obstacles designed to break up a charge by French knights.

The next major battle was in 1356 at Poitiers. The French knights charged with some effect. The English bowmen realised that their arrows were bouncing off the French armour so changed their point of aim to the horses. The French, unable to break through the hedge protecting the English, were eventually routed by The Black Prince.

It appears that the French understood the tactical lessons of these defeats. At the battle of Pontvallian in 1370, the French army under command of Bertrand du Guesclin, routed the English by attacking before the archers had properly established themselves, proving that it was possible to defeat the English if you attacked with surprise and speed.

But at Agincourt on 25 October 1415 all this was forgotten. The French army, commanded by Charles de Albret, who had fought with du Guesclin at Pontvallian, waited for the English move. For four hours the opposing armies viewed each other until King Henry V of England took the initiative, marched his army within bow shot of the French and started the battle that would end in a catastrophic French defeat. Same teams, same tactics, same result. article-1080497-023CD053000005DC-953_468x401

We are supposed to learn from our mistakes but the French failed to do this. You would have thought that the French military leaders might have sat down and said “ These English archers are really bad news, but if we hit them hard and fast before they can organise we can defeat them. Let’s come up with some innovative tactics for doing that”.

The problem of assuming that we will learn from mistakes is that either nobody will admit to mistakes, for very well proven psychological reasons, or we gloss over them as unpalatable truths. As a result we build on our experience slowly and are out done by those who can do it faster.

The simple truth is that lessons can and should always be learnt from any experience, good or bad, routine or extraordinary. Development relies on the exploitation of feedback provided by experience; quick feedback speeds up your development enabling you to get inside the development cycle of your opponents, rivals or adversaries. You get to change quicker which gives you the advantage.

In order to achieve this lessons must be identified. Solutions must be developed, implemented and subsequently embedded in the culture so they are not forgotten. This is in military parlance can be a “force multiplier”.

Yet, surprisingly few people or organisations exploit their experience in this manner and prefer to muddle along or lurch from crisis to crisis.

Lessons must identified, implemented and embedded to ensure that they are learned and not forgotten. That requires determined and sustained leadership.

How often do we hear leaders – politicians, CEOs, public sector appointees, generals – declare that there have been a terrible mistakes and lessons have been learnt? Ask yourself how many of these lessons will actually be embedded in the organisations culture.

Have we really learnt the lessons or are we just going through the motions? Are we likely to see another game of multi-billion roulette by the next generation of bankers once the lessons from the first decade of the 21st Century are forgotten? I wonder.

Joan of Arc Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Joan of Arc
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As for the French, well they did eventually learn their lesson. The catastrophe at Agincourt decimated the old military nobility, the king died and a young peasant girl emerged as an inspirational and innovative leader. The French went on to win the final quarter and finally kicked the English out of France by 1453; but this could have been achieved sixty years earlier if they had heeded the lessons of Crecy at the time.

So next time you are watching sport and see an English team supporter think of Agincourt and the need to learn lessons from experience. Then think how you can apply and embed it within your own business, organisation and institution.supporters

 Happy New Year

Advertisements

Maysan Revisited: What good will come of it?

  Lawyers are not a popular breed, especially when they are perceived to be chasing ambulances. But in some cases they can actually help, although not always in the way you might expect.

Take, for example, an incident in which six British soldiers died when their outpost at Al Majarr Al Kabir, in Maysan province of Iraq was overrun by local tribesmen. It sounds like an Al Majar Al Kabirevent from Britain’s colonial past but in fact it took place on 24 June 2003.

The subsequent Board of Inquiry conducted its work thoroughly and “found that the incident at Al Majarr Al Kabir was a surprise attack, which could not reasonably have been predicted”.

The inquest in 2006 recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. The British Army learnt and implemented its lessons. The six soldiers were remembered along with the other 173 British deaths in Iraq between 2003-2009, during what was known as Operation TELIC.

That was it, until 31 July 2013 when Sky News announced “Murdered Red Cap’s Family To Sue Government”.

Following the landmark judgement from the Supreme Court in June, which ruled that soldiers at war in foreign lands were covered by human rights laws and therefore owed a duty of care, the family of Corporal Russell Aston is suing the British Government for negligence.

The lawyers will no doubt be looking forward to this. For some it will be the crusading instinct of testing their skill against the boundaries of the law. Others will be salivating at the thought of all the potential “no win, no fee” work ready to be scooped from past and future conflict. All will be anticipating some healthy fees. However, lawyers aside, what good will come of this legal action?

Will the family benefit? I doubt that the court case will provide much comfort to them, despite the £250,000 sum that Sky News is quoting in compensation. I don’t believe that it’s about the money.

007

Photograph by Felix Spender

The adversarial nature of the court means that it will be win or lose and the stakes are high for the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Losing will perpetuate the family’s anguish and  winning will come at a price. I have never met anyone who has found tribunals or litigation less than traumatic, even if they end up on the winning side.

The best solution for the family would have been to resolve the conflict through mediation. This private, informal, consensual approach would almost certainly have delivered the answers needed by the family.

Sadly, it’s probably too late now, but if they were to change their minds North Light Solutions would support them.

022

Photograph by Felix Spender

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 focussed the Army on unacceptable deaths under the Health and Safety umbrella . It forced commanders to take legal responsibilities for equipment and training through a system of competent army authorities. It became incumbent on all the Armed Services to make sure that individuals were properly prepared for operations and that equipment was fit for purpose.

If such an authority had been in place in 2003 it is probable that failings such as the lack of body armour, highlighted at the inquest of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who was killed by friendly fire in March 2003, would never have occurred.So a legally defined duty of care for soldiers on the battlefield should be a good thing. No more half measures, just proper support.

The MOD will be concerned that the legal action will result in an outflow of cash in damaging legal actions. Army commanders will be concerned that additional legislation would limit their freedom of action in operational theatres. And yet maybe that would not be such a bad thing.

The Army’s operation in Iraq was not the British Army’s finest hour, despite the best efforts of the youngsters on the ground.

British operations were shown to be under-resourced and under-committed. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2003 to garrison a peaceful Northern Ireland, just as the insurgency broke out in Southern Iraq, seems to me to have been a significant misjudgement.

DSCF3640

US Army Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles entered service in 2007.

The British Army showed none of the agility of the US forces who, once they realised they had got it wrong, were able to write the doctrine, design and procure the equipment and retain the force while our soldiers were still trundling round in the ill suited SNATCH Land Rovers.

A successful action will force the Army and the MOD, in particular, to look more carefully at resourcing operations. The political cap on manpower will have to match the task. No more “just enough, just in time” logistics that turn into “too little, too late.” 

Military priorities will have to be reviewed as new operations emerge. Allies will have to be asked about their intent; no more mates going to a party but business partners working together over clearly defined aims. The decision makers – politicians, civil servants and senior officers – will have to be accountable.

Nobody would be naive enough to believe that the risk could be taken out of military operations but we should all subscribe to the belief that if we are going to do it, we must do it right.

So will any good come from this action? As I said earlier, the family will find it devastating and I sincerely wish they would take the less adversarial course of mediation to meet their needs.

For the rest, I think it could be a catalyst for positive change and I will raise a glass if the family wins.

005

Photograph by Felix Spender