Operational Art: How Do You Know If You Are Doing It Right?

Operational Art: How Do You Know If You Are Doing It Right?

Lincoln Ward

Operational art includes “overcoming ambiguity and intricacies of a complex, ever changing, and uncertain operational environment.”[i]  In order to understand the complexities of a modern operational environment an interdisciplinary approach is essential.  This includes not only studying military theorists and history, but also understanding aspects of sociology, science, and human and cultural geography.  This essay, although not all inclusive, will focus on noteworthy contributions in each field from the aforementioned list, which are essential for the operational artist to “better understand the problem or problems at hand.”[ii]  Each section will conclude with several guiding questions to keep in mind as both operational artists and leaders. 

The first theorist that has contributed to the interdisciplinary approach of practicing operational art is Mary Jo Hatch within her work Organizational Theory.  Quite simply, her presentation of multiple perspectives provides the operational artist with different ways of visualizing and understanding issues within an operational environment.  She asserts, “this expands your thinking and gives you ready access to accumulated knowledge.”[iii]  She goes on to stress that by using multiple perspectives you are more likely to thrive in complex and uncertain situations, understand individual and collective motives, and ultimately improve your organization.[iv]

By recognizing and appreciating multiple perspectives some questions that might arise are the following; what is the individual’s point of view,  how is there perception affecting their actions, and what biases are they exhibiting as a result of their perspective?  Hatch’s ideas logically lead to the next theory that contributes to successfully practicing operational art, which is complexity theory.

By understanding that we operate in within complex systems, we can better, as Axelrod and Cohen coin the term, “harness complexity.”[v]  This is applicable within the evolution of a military organization, as it learns, grows, and adapts and within conducting operations to defeat another complex adaptive system.  “To harness complexity…means living with it, and even taking advantage of it, rather than trying to ignore or eliminate it.”[vi]  The temptation is to over simplify situations instead of recognizing their complexity.  Complexity theory suggests that the world is made of Complex adaptive systems (CAS).  These systems, simply put, are interconnected agents, which are continually adapting and trying to improve the system.  The relationships between the agents define the system itself.[vii]  By attempting to disrupt the adversary CAS, an outside system can cause crisis within the system, known as bifurcation.[viii]  By continually attacking the CAS by adding energy to the system, bifurcation will continue to take place until the CAS has transitioned into what Osinga terms “the second region, [where] chaotic behavior is the rule.  Disturbances propagate rapidly throughout the system, often leading to disruptive effects.”[ix]

Taken a step further, John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) Loop describes how an operational artist can view complexity through multiple perspectives and then analyze and synthesize the information to inform recommendations to the commander or a for particular course of action.  This analysis and synthesis allows adaption to “unfamiliar phenomena and unforeseen challenges.”[x]  Critical to this is the ability to process feedback from all steps of the process, integrate outside information, and understand unfolding circumstances.[xi]  The final step in the OODA Loop, the action step fits within in operational art as or the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose to achieve strategic objectives.[xii]

Questions that an operational artist might pose when considering they are working within and against a CAS might include; how can the organization disrupt the linkages or inputs between nodes or actors to degrade this CAS, what are my limitations and constraints for attacking this CAS, and what are the critical capabilities and vulnerabilities within this CAS?  Specific questions related to John Boyd’s OODA Loop might include; how does the organization ensure it is accurately assessing feedback, what mechanisms are in place to measure or observe feedback, and how does this organization quickly modify its actions based on the feedback?                

Building on complexity theory and multiple perspectives is the study of history, as described by John Gaddis.  Gaddis introduces several concepts in The Landscape of History that assist the operational artist in using historical examples to both explain theory and anticipate the future.  The first such concept is simultaneity, which refers to analyze more than a single place or time, thereby offering multiple perspectives.[xiii]  This is useful for an operational artist when examining different instances of counterinsurgency, for example.  By virtue of the study of history, there are very few, if any military situations that are unique.  Gaddis discusses the concept of scale used by historians and the capability to shift from micro to macro level, providing multiple perspectives on an event.  Kalyvas illustrated the concept of scale in his analysis of civil war violence, uncovering misconceptions and anomalies when looking at data at the macro, meso, and micro levels.[xiv]  Gaddis also introduces the concept of continuities, or phenomena that happens across time.  Examples include lowering birth rates as economic development increases or that democracies do not go to war with one another.[xv]  On the other hand, Gaddis explains, contingencies, as anomalies that do not stem from patterns.  The study of history is necessary for understanding contingencies, as it is impossible to be objective while the contingency is happening.[xvi]    

Reinforcing Gaddis, Clausewitz supports the use of history as a way of seeing different points of view.  These points of view can help explain ideas, show application, and most importantly support the formulation of theory and doctrine.[xvii]  For the operational artist, the unbiased study of history, coupled with personal experience in war is desirable.[xviii]

Questions that an operational artist might pose when considering history might include; “of what is this an instance,” how have we dealt with this before, and is this an continuity or a contingency?[xix]

Expanding from the study of history is the idea of social constructionism presented by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann.  Making the connection back to Clausewitz’s idea that personal experience in war is valuable, is similar to the social construction ideas of objectification and internalization.[xx]  These ideas explain how individuals interpret the experiences they face, in this case war, and turn those experiences into knowledge.  The personal experience of war, in this example, provides one reality, studying history of several campaigns, along with various other theories of war, warfare, and social sciences, all contribute to the social construction of an individual.  Understanding the social realities of your environment as well as understanding the realities of society is what Berger and Luckmann call crystallization.[xxi]

The implications for social construction as an operational artist are numerous.  Building on Hatch’s idea of multiple perspectives, social construction shows how others gain and change their perspectives based on social interaction.  Social construction provides the basis for understanding other perspectives from afar based on history, culture, language, and geography.  Understanding social construction also enables an organization to shape the objective reality of a larger group by their interaction with it.  These interactions can take various forms, with the most effective being face to face communication.  This is important to remember when influencing people, or in social construction jargon, expanding ones subjective reality. [xxii]

Questions that an operational artist might pose when considering social construction could include; how can the organization influence their legitimized reality to meet our strategic aims, what lens are the adversary and the surrounding society looking through, what lens is our organization looking through that is limiting our understanding of the problem?           

Finally, understanding how physical and cultural geography affect the operational environment is essential to frame accurately complex problems.  Jeffery Herbst illustrates this point in States and Power in Africa.  Understanding the operational variables, such as political, cultural, infrastructure, are critical to framing problems.[xxiii]  Herbst expands from the operational variables listed in ADRP 3-90 to include concepts such as control and power.  These concepts, though they have service specific and joint doctrinal meanings, have much broader implications as illustrated in States and Power in Africa.  Africans had completely different social constructions of the notions of states, government and its role, control, and power from their European colonizers.[xxiv]  The takeaway is to do the analysis and understand the operational variables as thoroughly as possible within time constraints.  Avoid generalizations based on prior experiences, such as power projection in Europe vs Africa via roads.[xxv]

Questions that an operational artist might pose when looking at operational variables, as Herbst does when analyzing Africa are; how do we implement change, what is influencing the system, how did they build their understanding, and how should we organize for action?    

In review, operational art includes “overcoming ambiguity and intricacies of a complex, ever changing, and uncertain operational environment. Understanding the complexity of a modern operational environment an interdisciplinary approach is essential.  This approach includes studying military theorists and history, but also understanding aspects of social construction, complexity theory, and human and cultural geography.  This focused on noteworthy contributions in each field from the aforementioned list, which enable the operational artist to “better understand the problem or problems at hand.”[xxvi]

End Notes

[i] Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012), 4-1 Operational Art defined as “the pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose.  This approach enables commanders and staffs to use skill, knowledge, experience, and judgment to overcome the ambiguity and intricacies of a complex, ever changing, and uncertain operational environment to better understand the problem or problems at hand.”

[ii] ADRP 3-0, 4-1

[iii] Mary Jo Hatch and Ann L Cunliffe, Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 10.

[iv] Ibid., 11.

[v] Robert M. Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen, Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 9.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Frans P. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (London: Routledge, 2007), 96.

[viii] Ibid., 91. 

[ix] Ibid., 96.

[x] Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 231.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] ADRP 3-0, 4-1

[xiii] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). 24

[xiv] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[xv] Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 30.

[xvi] Ibid., 30-31. 

[xvii] Carl von Clausewitz, Bernard Brodie, and Rosalie West, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (United States: Princeton University Press, 1984), 170.

[xviii] Ibid., 174.

[xix] James N. Rosenau, The Scientific Study of Foreign Policy, rev. ed, (London: Frances Pinter, 1980), 33.

[xx] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1966). 61-70.

[xxi] Ibid., 133.

[xxii] Ibid., 29.

[xxiii] Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-90, Offense and Defense (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012), 6.

[xxiv] Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (Princeton, NJ, United States: Princeton University Press, 2000). 21-26.

[xxv] Ibid., 84.

[xxvi] Ibid.


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