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A DARK AND BLOODY GROUND
November 2, 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of what became the costliest US division-level operation in Europe in WWII: the 28th Infantry Division's (with attachments) attack into the Hürtgen Forest to capture the road center town of Schmidt, Germany. The failed operation cost about 7,000 American casualties in little more than a week of combat in a 20 sq. mi. area.
While German losses were also heavy, they held the initiative from the beginning. Ironically, when the GIs entered the cold, wet, dark woods, German generals were conducting a wargame using nearly the same scenario - countering an American attack in the area of Schmidt. They immediately alerted units in place and in reserve to cordon the American penetration of their line.
Many GIs were ill when they jumped off. There was not enough winter clothing, especially footgear, and what they had was of poor design. The higher HQ, V Corps, dictated the plan to the division commander, Major General Norman D. ('Dutch') Cota. He went into it thinking his troops had only a “gambler's chance” of success. There were not enough soldiers to adequately cover the ground the division had to control and the lack of potential reinforcement increased risk. The plan depended on the ability of air and artillery support to isolate the area. But weather soon closed in and it became an infantry battle. The main supply route for the division's lead elements was a narrow, muddy cart track leading across a wooded gorge and stream called the Kall. But V Corps and its higher HQ, First Army, dictated that this attack must go on because it was important to the larger plan – to get across the Rhine River before winter.
By the time the troops of the division’s 112th Infantry Regiment were across the Kall and in Schmidt (the afternoon of November 3d), they were too tired to dig in. The next morning, a powerful German counterattack drove them out - tanks fired directly into buildings and the GI's hastily dug holes in the earth. US tanks were not yet across the ravine.
"It was quite a sensation to see your buddies killed alongside you," said one man a few years later. Exhausted, cold and hungry survivors fled to a nearby hamlet and received tank and tank destroyer support hours later. They held on for a few more days before they withdrew under cover of night back across the Kall gorge.
Other GIs of the 112th were meanwhile, in the village of Vossenack. They dug in on an open ridge under direct view of German cannon on a nearby hill mass. It was the plan. They could not leave their holes during daylight and had to live with their waste. The pummeling lasted about 96 hours before many of the demoralized GIs simply ran from their positions, only to be stopped and held in a tenuous defense by some sergeants, lieutenants and captains. “We were so tired that we didn't even hear the shells when they landed close," said one veteran. The Germans took half the village within a few hours. The Americans retook it and the town church changed hands a half-dozen or more times.
Elements of the division's 110th Infantry Regiment became bogged down in a land mine and machine gun-infested ridge. Some companies that went into the battle with about 180 troops came out with a dozen - after replacements.
To stabilize the situation, First Army alerted elements of an adjacent infantry division to replace the 28th Division's 109th Regiment. It had spent a week on a hellish wooded plateau getting nowhere, fighting in a nest of German mines, wire and log-covered bunkers. As bad as its condition was, the 112th was worse off and, and what was left of the 109th had to reinforce the rubble pile that was Vossenack. The new regiment lasted a few days before, it, too, left the forest. An officer said, "the supply line was littered with dead."
As the disaster unfolded, Eisenhower and others descended on General Cota's command post, letting him know that they were unsatisfied with the division's performance and that if he could not make something happen, they'd find another commander. But the reports reaching Cota had been positive to the extent that combat efficiency was consistently rated 'excellent,' or in terms to that effect. There is no doubt that if reports were not purposely falsified, something led staff officers at every level from battalion to division to misrepresent the situation in the frontline positions. At any rate, Cota did not travel forward, relying instead on subordinates, messengers and written reports for information. The division HQ was in the dark for far too long about the true nature of the fighting. Cota realized too late that the operation was going nowhere, and his superiors were even more reluctant to end the misery.
The 28th and attachments withdrew from the Hürtgen Forest by mid-November and was replaced by another infantry division that took two weeks to gain a mile or so of ground. Graves registration personnel located the dead who were recoverable. Troops got some hot food and a shower. Many combat exhaustion cases (what we might call PTSD today) were in aid stations or other medical treatment facilities. A few hundred were headed east as German prisoners. V Corps investigated the disaster and naturally enough placed most of the blame on things other than its own plan.
Failure often results not from a single event, but the culmination of many. In the case of the US loss at Schmidt, it ranged from the coincidental meeting of German leaders, to a plan dependent on weather that was not likely in Europe in the autumn, illness, poor clothing, failure of leaders to correctly assess the front-line situation and micromanagement from higher HQ. However, as testament to the resilience of the surviving GIs, most found themselves fighting alongside thousands of new replacements in Luxembourg, facing a new enemy onslaught that began on December 16, 1944. The Battle of the Bulge.
The U.S. Army in early October 2017 released a new edition of its capstone doctrinal manual – Field Manual 3-0, Operations. Codification of how the army would fight its battles began in 1923 with ‘Field Service Regulations -Operations’. Later editions incorporated concepts ranging from WWII lessons to fighting the Soviet Cold War army in Central Europe.
It may be one of the most important publications you’ve never heard of. FM 3-0 provides the framework for how theater armies, corps, divisions and brigade combat teams shape outcomes, prevent conflict and prevail in ground combat. It covers several current topics such as information, cyber and space operations. However, its most important subject may be a renewed focus on major combat operations – something the army has not really had to address in 16 years.
The lethality of combat has increased due to the proliferation of advanced technologies, powerful adversaries who have had years to study the U.S. Army and themselves modernize, the rise of extremist ideologies, and the speed of human interaction. Some believe this environment has increased the likelihood of operations on a scale unlike any seen since WWII or Korea. Certainly the U.S. Army cannot discount the possibility. It – and America – also cannot assume that the most advanced technology will offset casualties. These battles may also be streamed in HD.
FM 3-0 contains several historical vignettes, and one briefly describes the campaign in the Hürtgen Forest, Germany, in 1944-45. This is the subject of my first book, A Dark and Bloody Ground, the Hürtgen Forest and Roer River Dams 1944-1945. http://www.tamupress.com/product/Dark-and-Bloody-Ground,3111.aspx
American forces fought in and near this 100 sq. mi. forest near Aachen, Germany between mid-September 1944 and early February 1945 at a cost of about 35,000 casualties – 2,000 per week. GIs fought initially for terrain and road objectives that meant nothing unless they controlled two hydroelectric dams deep in the woods. Yet they were not stated objectives at the outset. America today does not know such carnage. What level of threat to the nation would it take for the public to accept truckloads of dead and wounded – day after day?
One German general said it was worse than fighting the Soviets on the Eastern Front – “the heaviest I have ever witnessed.” German losses exceeded American.
Ernest Hemingway was a correspondent with the 22d Infantry Regiment, a unit that suffered 87% losses in two weeks. Years later he caustically remarked that it made more sense to shoot the replacements before they went forward because it was so hard to evacuate the dead and wounded. Some who left their foxholes at night simply disappeared.
The 9th Infantry Division sustained casualties at a rate of 1,000 GIs per mile for 3 miles of forest. The 28th Infantry Division and attachments lost about 7,000 men in 10 days. 72 hours cost another infantry division and attachments 1,500 men.
One American officer reported that the exhausted soldiers found it easier to walk on the dead than step over them. “The cold, hungry soldiers . . . scavenged for food among the bodies surrounding their positions.” Another soldier remarked that “there were dead bodies all over the place.”
The weather and terrain stripped the GIs of their superiority in air and armor support. The area saw its worst winter in 50 years. Troops faced bottomless mud, incessant rain and later snow, and German defenders who knew every inch of the ground. Non-battle casualties (sick and injured) overtaxed the forward medical units. Someone called it “hell with icicles.”
No one is predicting that combat such as this will happen again, and today’s medical and operational technology may enable the U.S. to avoid such a costly fight. Yet it is important to know that the Hürtgen Forest campaign began as a ‘pick-up’ attempt to gain a fast breakthrough of enemy positions. No one intended to fight a protracted battle of attrition. Poor decisions led to it. Leaders must understand that no comprehensive doctrine can replace a decision made in haste and not corrected. The realities of large-scale operations are too grave to think otherwise.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
It is said that 'no good deed goes unpunished.' Most of us hope that our encounter with this adage causes no permanent career consequences.
Some recover and receive corporate forgiveness for a transgression. Unfortunately for others, the 'good deed' ends a career. A difficult boss, competing peers, or circumstances beyond one's control can play havoc with a good intent. For 56 year-old US Army Major General John Millikin, payback came in March 1945, just weeks before the end of WWII in Europe. His decision to send his III Corps across the Rhine River and enter Germany's heartland at the town of Remagen reflects vision, initiative and leadership---three army values. In Millikin's case, however, the decision led to his relief from duty and relegation to the ranks of the unknown US generals of WWII.
Millikin graduated from West Point, served in WWI and followed a typical career path in the pre-WWII army. He received several promotions after the US entered the war, and led III Corps (about 80,000 soldiers) in a counterattack against the south shoulder of the Ardennes "Bulge" in early 1945. Perhaps his success wasn't all it seemed, since his boss at the time, George Patton, thought Millikin was "'very amateurish...I don't like him and never have.'" Some of this is attributable to pre-war internal army politics.
The III Corps transferred in February 1945 to the First Army, under Courtney H. Hodges, who was unforgiving of any hint of real or perceived inefficiency. Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, meanwhile, set the strategy for the final stages of the European campaign: a drive by the British-led 21st Army Group across the Rhine into Germany's Ruhr industrial area. The US-led 12th Army Group would support. American planners knew that terrain and logistical considerations favored the British zone of attack.
Hodges and Millikin on 4 March discussed the possibility of crossing the Rhine at Remagen, but understandably assumed the Germans would not let the Ludendorff railroad bridge fall into American hands. They did not know that the German leaders on the ground faced a complicated command setup and overlapping responsibilities. They were waiting until the last minute to destroy the bridge.
Yet Millikin's mission was to attack south and link up with Patton's Third Army near Remagen, not cross the river. Still, III Corps troops were in position to take advantage of an opportunity at the town and the Frist Army G3 (operations officer) on 6 March told Millikin to do so. The same day, Millikin told John Leonard, commander of the subordinate 9th Armored Division, to comply with the standing orders but to take the bridge at Remagen if possible. He told Leonard that he would go down in "glory" if he did so.
The drama mounted by the hour. Leonard's subordinate, William Hoge, interpreted rather liberally the mission to move south, and on the morning of 7 March sent an armored task force to Remagen. He thought it was "the opportunity of a lifetime." At mid-morning, US air reconnaissance reported the Ludendorff bridge was intact. About noon, GIs led by a lieutenant of German descent reached the high ground above the town and verified the air report. The electrifying news went up the chain.
Hoge arrived to take direct command. The Germans tried but failed to blow the bridge. As it literally settled down on its pilings, the riflemen ran across under fire. One man told his sergeant, "'I don't want to go, but I will.'"
Leonard understood the consequences of deviating from the plan and wondered if he'd "caused a lot of trouble." Millikin got the news around 4 PM on 7 March and Hodges was aware soon afterwards. He ordered Millikin to exploit the crossing. When Hodges's boss, Omar Bradley, commanding general of the 12th Army Group, received the news in the late evening, he told Eisenhower's chief of staff, "there goes your ballgame....'" Eisenhower to his credit ordered limited exploitation of the opportunity.
But trouble was already in motion. The Germans reacted quickly, cordoning off the bridgehead, placing the crossing under artillery fire and eventually using combat swimmers and rockets against it. Millikin's staff, meanwhile, had to manage redirection into the bridgehead of tens of thousands of soldiers and thousands of vehicles from every type of unit in the corps including infantry, artillery, tank, transportation, supply, medical, maintenance, anti-aircraft and communications. Attack and supply routes had been oriented south toward Third Army, not to the east and the Rhine. The roads broke down under the punishment. Units crossed the river as they became available, not necessarily as they were needed. Tactical bridges were imperative because of the damage to the Ludendorff bridge but engineer traffic added to the congestion.
Courtney Hodges was not as mild-mannered as he looked, and he quickly became frustrated with Millikin's handling of the battle despite the strings imposed by Eisenhower's headquarters. Hodges was particularly upset by the lack of timely and accurate information from the river's east bank. Units also often reported incorrect locations or misstated the direction of their attacks. The First Army staff was openly critical of Millikin. Hodges on 11 March visited the east bank and came away wanting the troops to push north; however, he evidently waited four days before letting Millikin know it. Millikin oriented his units east and southeastward, no doubt thinking this would help draw German reserves from the planned main attack in the north. He did not know that Hodges was already considering firing him.
Hodges and Bradley discussed the matter, but it was Hodges's decision in the end. When he broke the news to Millikin on 17 March, Millikin told him that the Ludendorff bridge had finally collapsed into the Rhine, killing twenty-eight GIs and injuring another 93.
The III Corps staff believed that Hodges's staff had been 'keeping book' on its performance, and wanted an excuse to recommend Millikin's relief. Millikin and his staff acknowledged shortcomings in managing the complex operation but they blamed the relief on the fact that the decision to cross the Rhine had upset Allied plans. Hodges permitted the crossing but Eisenhower approved only limited expansion of the bridgehead and did not allow commitment of strong reserves. Some also believed Hodges and his staff took credit for the decision to capture the bridge but did not hesitate to let the blame roll downhill when operations bogged down and they learned that Eisenhower's headquarters was unhappy with the crossing. Add to the mix the fact that a fellow corps commander openly stated that he would have done better than John Millikin.
Remagen was a poor site for a river crossing operation, but what was Millikin to do when presented with such an opportunity? Both sides were unprepared but time favored the Germans. John Millikin knew what he was getting into, and he had to contend with a difficult boss, peer competition, and internal politics. The tactical situation was uncertain and there were physical limitations beyond his control. Yet he could not in good conscience ignore the opportunity. Sometimes there is no good choice. Only a choice. And the consequences.
New Coke and Tank Destroyers
What do the US Army’s development of a new weapon in WWII and the 1980’s New Coke experiment have in common?
We translate information about the competition into actionable business intelligence (BI). Information is not intelligence and the latter requires thoughtful human – not machine - interpretation to be of real value. Reacting to a threat posed by a technology or market development depends on what I call critical think-through – with emphasis on the ‘through’ part. It’s a matter of productive response despite an organization’s biases and culture. Even urgency, which is often self-imposed, is no excuse for failing to undertake thoughtful, critical analysis of a predicament. Don’t rush to judgment. Be efficient, but don’t dash headlong into a tricky matter.
There are no exact historical analogies across time, but the constant of human nature enables us to use past examples to identify some potential concerns with how we might interpret market information.
Screaming media headlines early in WWII covering Germany’s employment of an integrated ground and air combined arms team led senior US Army generals to urgently search for an answer to a disruptive technological threat. The Americans decided that the situation needed a specialized response because prevailing doctrine did not see the tank as an anti-tank weapon in itself. Most thought its role was to penetrate front lines and strike rear areas: save the anti-tank fighting for another weapon.
Germany’s effectiveness against flawed Allied doctrine in 1940 did little to clarify the situation. The American reflex was to develop a specialized organization based on centralized control of large pools of lightly-armored wheeled, and later, tank-like vehicles, that would kill enemy tanks. They also did not grasp that the headline-grabbing panzer forces amounted to only about 10% of the entire German army. It was a horse-drawn force. The US Army’s corporate bias toward the ‘proper’ role of the tank and assumptions about the hitting power of the German army led them astray. Desperation to develop and bring ‘to market’ a new ‘product line’ diverted scarce resources from basic rearmament programs and led to deployment of a weapon to counter a threat that did not really exist. This reaction made some sense in an organization without a centralized system for R&D or for developing combat doctrine. It was how the army did business at the time. Tank destroyer soldiers served the nation with distinction – but usually not performing a mission for which they’d been trained.
Let’s move ahead 40 years. By the 1980s Coke executives were engaged in a war with Pepsi. Its sweeter formula was gaining market share and disrupting Coke’s hold on the cola battleground. Coke’s own studies appeared to corroborate the results of the nationwide “Pepsi Challenge.” Pepsi was growing in sales and evidently appealing to changing public demand. The ‘Pepsi Challenge’ ‘sip tests’ were problematic in that the public tasted only a small sample of the two beverages. They did not take several of the blue cans home for extended test. Coke also had wider availability, was priced competitively, and was the major staple soft drink of the south.
To help clarify the nature of the threat, Coke launched nationwide focus groups, surveys and taste tests with an experimental sweet formula. Coke executives also placed weight on the sip test results despite their questionable methodology. Some researchers also believe Coke mistakenly ignored intangibles like packaging and branding image – that red can meant something to a lot of people, perhaps even influencing their perception of the taste of the drink. The company altered its ‘original’ formula to make it taste a bit more like Pepsi. Its approach was in line with prevailing best practices (doctrine) in conducting taste-based marketing research despite the importance of branding, packaging and image to consumer preference.
Like some army leaders in the early 1940’s, Coke executives relied on underdeveloped information to identify a potential solution. They committed resources, time and money to bring ‘New Coke’ to market in the spring of 1985. Faced with a stunningly negative reaction the company soon reintroduced the original formula. The overall balance of taste, packaging and perception returned to normal.
US Army leaders were products of a culture that emphasized development of corporate-wide doctrine without a centralized approach to implementing materiel solutions. But corporate practices (doctrine) are not dogma. In the case of the tank destroyer, the army deployed a new weapon based in part on interpretation of media reports and failures in the performance of Allied armies. Diverting scarce materiel, manpower and training resources to tank destroyers took attention from improving US tanks. Coke executives likely assumed that the doctrine behind their method for market research was correct and that whatever information it provided would be ‘right.’ Experts later concluded in part that thorough taste tests might have better identified the reasons behind public reaction to the two formulas. The ‘sip test’ benefited only Pepsi. Executives did not appear to consider the importance of branding to overall consumer perception of taste. While both the army and Coke situations were complex, if there is a lesson from history it may be this: does your organization really think through its reaction to an apparently urgent situation, or does it stop as soon it gets the answer it wants?
Look Back to Look Ahead
All the technology, information and intelligence in the world cannot prevent a faulty decision based on human error, bias and ego. Organizations spend a lot of time and money -sometimes with questionable results- trying to reduce uncertainty in decision making or to help inexperienced managers lead others. Predictive/business intelligence tools help, but there are no reliable models for dealing with human nature. Reducing doubt extends to selection of talent. The long-term effectiveness of trendy ‘team building’ retreats is doubtful. Leaders cannot turn over to an HR department or executive coach their own responsibility for identifying potential, or worse, for fixing a mistake in their own judgment about a subordinate’s potential. Short, pithy little books along the lines of “Leadership Secrets of General [fill in the blank]” lack context and are not a how-to guide on making tough decisions in ambiguous situations complicated by instant international communications and cultural differences.
Managers achieve goals through people. However much we prefer things to be different, we must deal with the intangibles of human behavior. It is impossible to eliminate uncertainty and volatility in business. But there is a no-cost tool that can help inform decision making – it is a thoughtful reading of history. I’m not advocating that everyone should get a B.A. Rather I’m suggesting that leaders really can learn from the past and apply this to the way they think about their operating environment (which is an inescapable result of the past and its personalities). They can learn the importance of a skeptical approach to courses of action; the need to identify bias in thought; the vital importance of accuracy and attention to detail in reporting; managing personalities; processes for separation of hard data and evidence from supposition. It is less about what happened than it is about identifying how and why.
In May 2017, I commented on Linked-In about a practical way to apply history – the corporate staff ride where executives go to sites of importance to study and reflect on the actual ground the decisions that set events into motion. Personal study is an alternative. When looking at the past, I suggest that managers ask what successful historical figures did differently than the ‘competition.’ How did those in the past either build, or ruin, cohesive management teams during times of great stress on systems? How did they enable their subordinates to spot trends? How did they cope with ambiguity? What processes were in place to develop and make actionable information available to the “CEO?” What trigger points alerted past leaders to change their organizational positioning in relation to the competition? We might also consider what some scholars have identified as a ‘tyranny of success.’ High-performing firms can lose their edge when factors such as vision or positioning that led to success in the first place become a threat in themselves.
One can find in the record of military innovation what might occur when an organization develops new ‘products’ without a strategy for using them effectively, as did several nations in their approach to mobile warfare prior to WWII. Looking at reaction to a crisis is more than learning how to react to a stunning surprise on the battlefield. It is also a matter of identifying why the crisis happened in the first place and looking at what people did to mitigate the situation. Crises are usually the product of a chain of events, not a single error or misstep. Leaders need to develop the ability to see past the immediate, and question themselves.
People don’t really change. Fear, discomfort, envy, greed and jealousy will always be on the executive’s plate. So should esprit, character and personal accountability for performance. Stress is ever-present and anxiety about results is a product of life. Others have endured the same grind in the past - they made sacrifices, and some have had the clarity of mind to take their organization to new levels of achievement. Application of history is another tool available to a manager out to enhance performance and gain competitive advantage.
The Executive's Reframing Process
Boston Consulting Group's March 2017 "Perspectives" newsletter described an 'Integrated Strategy Machine' that blends human and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into an organization that can develop and execute a business strategy.
BCG notes that AI isn't yet capable of replacing a human manager's creativity or intelligence. Its use as a strategy tool is generally limited to pattern recognition, predictive analysis and situational signal detection.
Yet before becoming enamored with the latest shiny object, we should realize that the fundamental planning tasks remain (so far) an inescapable human responsibility. In the BCG model, CEOs, not machines, define objectives, shape input into the AI tools, and direct execution of the strategy while reframing the problem(s) that drive the strategy.
I think this is absolutely central to the mental agility and flexibility essential to organizational survival. Reframing a problem or one’s estimate of the situation is also a step in military planning processes. The concept isn't new. Codification of US military strategic planning processes that include 'reframing' began over 80 years ago. Roughly translated into contemporary terms, the CEO considers reframing a problem or hypothesis if the existing strategy fails to meet the criteria for success, or if aspects of the business environment change significantly. The CEO should then consider reorienting the planning effort if needed.
CEOs must make time to think and reflect despite the incessant demands on their time. They must use data and business intelligence, but also rely in experience and their gut to maintain situational understanding and visualization of the operating environment. They must also be wiling to walk away from even the most cherished beliefs about their operation. They and their planning staffs must be self-aware of bias in thinking and be able to determine the 'branches and sequels' uncovered by strategy execution. The CEO must set a climate allowing debate despite the arrogance and egos that will enter the process.
Reframing is a cyclic - not a 'one off' exercise because mere modification of an existing plan may not be enough if the organization faces a disruptive competitor.
If higher level military planning can be faulted for a lockstep pace, businesses should not wear inability to plan as a badge of honor. AI isn't yet at the place where the executive can avoid responsibility for an outcome and blame failure on a machine.
Can we use history to teach values-based business and public sector leadership?
Today's business and public sector leaders can learn from the past, and there is a link between the study of history and improved critical thinking skills, crisis decision making, and values-based operations.
Military leaders are taught to focus first on people. Most graduate schools, when they teach a separate leadership (vs. management) track, still focus on resources before the human element. Yet the human factor drives all others, and the manager/leader who ignores this unalterable fact does so at great risk. Business school case studies, for example, are really historical 'lessons learned' exercises. Still, they do not get the person on the ground for an experiential discussion.
The best public and private sector organizations focus on building staff and client trust. They must have stable, emotionally mature leaders/executives. Yet there is often no real learning laboratory for them. As a result, practical experience is often comes at the risk of customers, shareholders and employees.
The Corporate Staff Ride (CSR) is an on the scene critical analysis of applied management concepts. CSRs provide a unique experiential learning environment. There is no substitute for putting people on an actual piece of terrain, confronting them with a historical situation analogous to a business event, then stimulate them to reach conclusions or derive lessons from the experience that they can apply in the corporate setting.