Soldiers and diplomats are typically viewed as two different species. Different mindsets, skill sets and jobs to do.

But in 2010, General Lloyd J. Austin III and Ambassador James F. Jeffrey were charged with leading Operation New Dawn and the United States’ transition from a military operation to a sustainable diplomatic and civilian role in Iraq. They had 15 months to accomplish the mission including the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

General Austin and Ambassador Jeffrey knew that their complex mission demanded a tight, “as one” working relationship among individuals and teams throughout both organizations.

The two leaders understood that it would take more than assigning people to work together on tasks or talking the talk of collaboration. Just putting groups together when there is a history of competition or conflict or “different DNA” typically leads to failed partnerships, diminished problem-solving capability, turf battles, disengagement and distrust, and decreased productivity.

The General and the Ambassador decided to build capacity for collaboration within their organizations by conducting a “Combined Vision Development Seminar” for the division commanders, general officers and counselor-level embassy personnel.

The goal of the seminar was to jump-start the process of becoming a “team of teams.” The day would set the framework for “how” the two departments were going to achieve unity of effort.

The 16-hour seminar was facilitated by CCL faculty and held in Baghdad just weeks after the two men had assumed their respective posts.

During the seminar, the participants from Defense and State learned about strategies that would allow them to effectively overcome the challenges of identity difference, span boundaries and create high-performing, collaborative teams.

The groups shared perspectives, took a hard look at each other’s roles and responsibilities and gained insight as to how they could best work together. They established and strengthened cross-organizational relationships, crafted a shared vision, and made personal commitments to collaboration and creating unity of effort.

The groups worked on specific, high-priority issues, identified metrics to measure success, and began to solve joint challenges. And they confronted the realities of what could go wrong, both between the two agencies and as they worked with external stakeholders: What challenges might get in our way? What obstacles are we facing? How could these challenges be transformed into new solutions?

Implementation began with the shared commitment to collaboration that emerged from the Combined Vision Development Seminar. “It was transformational, because the investment we made during that one long day really carried us for a year,” said General Austin.

“The day set the tone and set many of the operating conditions for what happened the next year,” said Ambassador Jeffrey. “It was extremely helpful. And it has paid tremendous dividends.”

The two men and their organizations created several structures and expectations that would support intense collaboration, including routine joint meetings, a mindset of inclusion, a commitment to operate “as one,” and valuing differences as strengths.

In a short period of time, collaboration became part of the hard-wiring within and between State and Defense operations in Iraq.

“We knew that if we really set out to model the right behavior for our subordinates, it would help to forge a common ground with both of our organizations,” explained General Austin.

“Over time, our actions became routine. Even as people rotated in and out, it became normal; it became ‘The way that we’ve always done things.'”

Read the full story and see photos: Boundary Spanning as Battle Rhythm by Donna Chrobot-Mason, Chris Ernst and John Ferguson.

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