Black Hawk Down: What a Bad Plan Taught Me about Data Governance

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How often do you hear this one? “Man, THAT was dumb. How could you let that happen?” It is usually not said with malice, but more often than not, its code for “I would NEVER have let that happen you tiny, pipsqueak of a lemming.” I hate it with a passion.  Every time I hear it is like a punch to the kidney.

A particularly memorable time I heard this was in regard to the communications plan developed for a Joint Special Operations Task Force, which was conducting missions on the Horn of Africa in the early 90’s. Some of you may be familiar with the battle that was written about by Mark Bowden in his best seller Black Hawk Down. In fairness, the ‘you’ here was not necessarily me in particular but the larger organization of which I was a member.

After a fight, good units will conduct a detailed review of the events, which if done well, expose hidden successes and failures that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. At my level, there were plenty of mistakes made, some documented in the book and movie; I didn’t have enough water, didn’t have my night vision goggles, trust me when I say the list is not that short.

In the same forensic study, there were critical breakdowns at higher levels that had great effect on our tactical execution. One of these issues was the communications plan.  In a short summary, every leader had a handheld radio.  He also had a more robust radio generally carried by another designated soldier to communicate with the commander (think President of a company).  Seems simple enough.  I had the ability to speak to my peers adjacent to me and also to the boss. I also had another soldier with me with a man portable system that was designated specifically for calling in indirect fire (mortars.)  Still seems pretty simple.  But we also had other special units on the ground (working for the same commanding general, think partners working for the same CEO/CIO/CDO) that had similar systems, only a lot better.  All the special operators had their own radios with pretty jazzy encryption, so they could talk amongst themselves and not get stepped on by others in the task force (read enterprise.)  Just to make matters a little more complex, we had a helicopter flying over the battlefield with the commander (president) of the Delta guys, and the commander (you guessed it, el jeffe) of the aviation unit.  These two had a direct line to the Commanding General (CEO).

At face value, it was very well organized and every system was in place for a specific purpose.  The process made sense.  But, Murphy rides with us all, daily. And in this instance, just about everything that could go wrong with our communications plan did just that, in spades. In my case, as soon as we got on the ground my man portable radio would not transmit (though it worked in our pre combat check 20 minutes prior.)  My handheld radio would transmit sporadically.  I have no idea what caused the interference but it happened, at the worst possible time, when trying to call in a medical evacuation. Then throw in the fact that I could see, literally across the street, other members of the task force, and could not contact them on the radio because of the incompatible communications systems. And last but not least, my third radio, the one to call in fire support, was being used by all the other fire support guys because everyone was in the middle of a fire fight. Nightmare.

You can see what a mess this was and you can probably see why the opening indictments occur with all the ferocity of just about every Monday morning quarterback club.  The fact of the matter is, its obvious now that is was faulty. But, in fairness to the smart guys and gals who came up with the initial plan, it made sense. And, in fairness, it had worked before. The situation changed, the needs changed and all of a sudden it didn’t work. Spoiler alert, that was 1993, we were so dumb back then, right?

If that doesn’t resonate with every single person involved in the data and information management word in 2015 I don’t know what will.  The rules and standards we applied back in the day certainly worked at the time.  Our thoughts about data management and data governance had adequate logic and the calculus worked well, until the situation and the needs changed.  Then of course, it didn’t work so well.  How could you let that happen?  Note the sarcasm.

The answer is that nobody did it on purpose. It happens.  And it requires in our data arena, as it does on the battlefield, some really gifted people to figure it out, sometimes under duress, and find a way to win.  Leaders must learn from past mistakes.  We must always refine our plans and critically (overused but fitting) think about what comes next. Its only dumb if we do it again. Then, the answer to the second question is easy, ‘because it worked before, and that was good enough.”

Save yourself the heartache and frustration folks, you’re not immune.  Look at the past and predict the future.

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