Small Wars Journal

How COIN Theory Explains Organizational Change

How COIN Theory Explains Organizational Change by Douglas Pryer, Modern War Institute

Counterinsurgency theory—the theoretical underpinnings of U.S. COIN doctrine, especially as expressed in the “Strategic Principles” and “Counterinsurgency Paradoxes” sections of Field Manual 3-24, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies—shares much in common with popular change models for transforming organizations. In this new MWI Report, Non-Resident Fellow, LTC Douglas A. Pryer writes that since the human dynamics underlying all group competitions are similar (whether at the nation-state or small organization level), all leaders can benefit from applying COIN theory to achieve significant organizational change in order to “win.” Conversely, he argues, military theorists and doctrine writers could improve both COIN theory and U.S. doctrine by studying and adapting elements of change models developed for civilian leaders. Indeed, it is likely that our nation’s ineffective counterinsurgencies in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan would have charted a better course if our doctrine during these conflicts had included key aspects of popular change…

Read on.


Bill C.

Thu, 10/06/2016 - 10:43am

From the author's full article above:


Conclusion: So, You Want to Be Revolutionary?

It may seem strange to equate change with COIN theory when the COIN doctrine it is nested within is designed to keep a select foreign government in power. After all, are not insurgents the real revolutionaries? The answer to this question is “it depends.” Sometimes, a government striving to adapt their nation to new circumstances creates a reactionary insurgency (as occurred at the small unit level in my case study).


From Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux:"


But, in several modern campaigns — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example — the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in “resistance warfare”). Such patterns are readily recognizable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counterinsurgency theory. Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier -- a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counterinsurgency.


Thus, by our author above (LTC Pryer) focusing his article on, might we say, the desire of a hated "foreigner" -- to effect massive, all encompassing and significantly unwanted "change" -- he gets directly to the central underlying problem that the U.S./the West faces in the New/Reverse Cold War today -- and the central underlying problem that the Soviets/the communists faced in the Old Cold War of yesterday. This central underlying problem being, in both instances noted above,

a. That these great nations (the Soviets/the communists back then; the U.S. the West today) sought/seek to massively transform ("change"), the entire Rest of the World, more along their alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines. This, while,

b. Much of the Rest of the World wanted/wants absolutely nothing to do with (and indeed is absolutely abhorred by the very thought of and thus gravely fears) these such, in their eyes, horrible/terrible way of life, way of governance and value, attitude and belief "changes" -- that the hated foreigners seek to impose upon them.

AND the fact that our author, LTC Pryer, is able to link Thucydides' "honor, interest, and fear" to these massive, indeed "revolutionary," and exceptionally unwanted alien and profane political, economic, social and value "changes" -- that these "expansionist"/"hated foreigner" great nations seek to impose on the entire Rest of the World -- this such linkage, I believe, should be seen as exceptionally compelling, and as exceptionally valuable, to all our readers.


Why do some subordinates seem to always resist significant change? Thucydides’ list – “honor, interest, and fear” – answers this question. One driver of resistance lies in deep-rooted organizational culture or “identity”: “Insurgents” may see themselves as protecting from assault a vital element of the organization's identity. Another driver may be the perceived impact that proposed change will have on existing power structures and pay. A third may be subordinates’ fears that change will lead to their being demoted, moved, or losing their job. As in an armed insurgency, resistance typically coalesces around some combination of all three drivers.


Bottom Line:

Well done Lieutenant Colonel Pryer !!!!


Wed, 10/05/2016 - 11:33am

I will just comment on what the author calls "nations ineffective counterinsurgencies in Vietnam". This statement probably ticks off at least several hundred thousand Vietnam vets still alive, me included. The COIN manual does address CORDS. In doing so one will learn that 92% of the population of the South was under government control. That sounds a whole lot like some degree of success to me and says we were winning when we left. Parts of the COIN manual makes no warrior sense. I also reject Nagl's assertion that the US Army in Vietnam was not a learning organization when compared to the British in Malaysia as though that was some academic exercise in organizational behavior and change. Learning organizations theory is so stuck in the 90s.