What the economy can learn from the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine

Companies often make a number of recurring mistakes in business operations that can be detrimental in a merger, divestiture, or acquisition. But most of these mistakes are usually kept secret and covered up; Scapegoats will be blamed, people will be fired, and the decision makers responsible will get off scot-free.

If you watch last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recent Russian attack on Ukraine, you can publicly flaunt errors in real time. And while the blame game can still draw our attention to them, both events are worth using as teachable moments.

The three faults I am referring to move with insufficient intelligence; make wrong assumptions; and to focus on blame rather than root cause analysis. (I was on the wrong side of the last one myself and understand it well.)

Afghanistan and insufficient intelligence

Before the Biden administration took office, it had two major problems – one known, one unknown. The well-known issue: It was aggressively barred from briefings on ongoing operations by the Trump administration. The unknown problem: Virtually all third-party support had been withdrawn from the region, leaving the Afghan army unable to stand on its own two feet.

The Biden administration lacked the information it needed to confirm a decision it had made (and key players in the region warned that the Afghan army was in trouble). Had Biden’s team taken the time to understand the issue, they might have mitigated it and blamed the delay on the previous administration’s lack of preparation. By choosing to proceed without proper information, it rightfully owned the messy outcome.

It reminds me of HP’s acquisition of Autonomy. Prior to the acquisition, HP didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision (and the CFO at the time wasn’t on board). But HP executives felt the need to keep moving forward, and the move failed spectacularly as a result.

The Autonomy acquisition contrasts with Dell’s purchase of EMC, which should have been much more difficult given EMC’s size. Dell’s approach was to make informed decisions and provided early teams that could define any issues involved and develop a successful plan to execute the merger.

Russia and Ukraine: lack of controls

Facebook and Russia have similar governance structures, with top executives who cannot be removed and who are tactical and unwise when it comes to important decisions. I first saw this at IBM in the late 1980s: executives became isolated, made disastrous decisions, IBM got its first unplanned CEO layoff. Many of Facebook’s failures in recent years can be traced back to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and an unchecked governance structure. This is how Russia is run now.

When a lot of power resides in one person, that person is more likely to make avoidable catastrophic mistakes, such as the invasion of Ukraine appears to be. The typical response is to publicly fire subordinates and blame them for problems caused by the country (or company) leader. This leads to a cascading problem: the people who are let go are often the ones who disagreed with the decision – making it more likely that future decisions will also be disastrous.

Proper controls are important at all levels of corporate governance, especially at the top, where failure at this level is more likely to have disastrous consequences. Intel’s leadership under Brian Krzanich was like that, but the company’s board eventually pushed him out. Now Pat Gelsinger is busy fixing problems that should never have arisen. That sort of option doesn’t seem possible on Facebook (or in Russia), suggesting that both have futures that are far from certain.


We often focus too much on blame. Executives who may be good at corporate politics are often very good at blaming their mistakes elsewhere. I once did a report about a senior vice president of sales – one of the most powerful people in my company – who had used salespeople who didn’t understand the market or the products they were selling. He leaked my report to a competitor, accused me of leaking it, and aggressively demanded my firing. Luckily, I anticipated a leak and, with the help of others in the company, was able to identify the same Sales VP as the problem. He ended up leaving to work for the competitor he leaked the report to. But the main problem was never addressed, which eventually contributed to the failure of my department.

It’s easy for people to shift the blame when the focus is guilt rather than analysis. It is crucial to first understand what is causing a problem before proposing and particularly implementing a solution. Otherwise, you will do more damage and the problem will likely appear again.

The war in Ukraine has exposed three problems that Russia seems unaware of. First, the Russian people do not support the war, which affects military effectiveness and creates significant internal problems with operational efficiency. Secondly, the Russian military is in poor condition due to low-quality components such as tires. Third, to be successful, the operation had to be completed within days to avoid a global backlash. But taking cities in days with current technology isn’t possible unless you kill or remove their population, which wasn’t viable given NATO’s potential entry into combat.

In summary, in business operations, insufficient intelligence, lack of control over decision-makers, and an excessive focus on blame (rather than root-cause analysis) can guarantee the failure of any project, whether it’s a product failure like Zune (Microsoft’s attempt to fight the iPod) or war like the one we are experiencing in Ukraine.

Mistakes can be avoided, but only if you focus on making sure decisions are well reasoned – and you can’t do that without understanding the information about a decision, making sure the decision maker is well reasoned, and getting closer to it focus on learning from mistakes than finding scapegoats. It’s something to keep in mind when following current events.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc. What the economy can learn from the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine

Fry Electronics Team

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