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Winning in a Complex World Starts with Thinking
Cassandra Crosby and Anthony Marston
In the early 1970s, the New York Yankees had fallen a long ways from the days of Mantle and Maris just a decade earlier. The disillusioned team was plagued with organizational issues and a lack of rising-star talent. It was during this period that outfielder Oscar Gamble offered up a thought-provoking and now famous quote: “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”[i] His quote reflects a problem that many organizations continue to wrestle with today: an inability to see the environment and themselves for what they really are.
Maybe if Oscar Gamble was a Soldier in today’s Army, he might share the same sentiments. The contemporary operational environment seldom resembles the one conceived in planning largely due to its inherent complexity. Carefully formulated strategies and plans rarely make it past first contact unaltered as forces encounter operational conditions and enemy activity, often dissimilar to previous intelligence estimates.
Moving Beyond Doctrine
Doctrine, while built on historical successes, is not always relevant to the current situation and therefore provides no assurance of victory. For example, tactical success achieved using doctrinal principles can lead to strategic failure if a force fails to arrange tactical actions in a manner that carefully considers those actions in relation to strategic aims. Rather than dogmatically adhering to doctrine, thriving in the contemporary context means a force must be able to adapt to rapidly changing and continuously novel problems by developing novel solutions. However, contemporary military thought trends toward linearity and over simplification. Given the complex and non-linear nature of the current context, this preference for simplified mental models must change if the US Army wants to improve its ability to adapt to the challenges of a complex world. Enhancing the leaders’ ability to adapt and develop innovative solutions is not resolved by merely developing doctrine that prescribes how leaders should think in a different manner. Rather, the Army must set cultural and climatic conditions to enhance individual capacity for thought while providing time and space for reflection.
Simple Logic Is Not Enough
Planners often attempt to use simple logic to predict outcomes and discount the counterintuitive properties of direct additivity. If this simple logic worked, technology would win wars and the human element of war would be insignificant. For example, in strategic bombing, two bombing runs of five munitions each would be equal to one bombing run of ten munitions. Instead, the effects of each bombing run vary based on environmental conditions, the accuracy of the bombing run, the enemy’s reaction, and target construction, among various other tangible and intangible factors. Despite uncertainty, strategists often select linear solutions such as adding additional troops or resources to an existing approach, rather than reframing the problem and developing a novel approach. These linear solutions can exacerbate existing problems, causing multi-order effects that may take years to manifest, but will eventually emerge and often with unintended consequences.
War Is Not a Game of Numbers
Another linearity of contemporary military thought is a fixation on destroying enemy forces. Military theorists conceptualize attrition warfare as a linear mathematical equation by comparing friendly firepower with enemy firepower, ignoring the relativity of relative combat power.[ii] Course of action development and war-gaming often center around determination of probable attrition rates given fixed numbers of equipment and personnel. Figures and decision matrices that fail to factor in relativity do little to account for the intangibles of actual battle. Take tank warfare as an example: tanks are not simply at conflict against one another in a machine versus machine duel. Instead, each tank consists of individual crews with their own tactical training and thought processes. Furthermore, the operational environment provides additional challenges in weather and terrain to each tank, including those factors not even involved in the battle itself. While it is easier to conceive of war as the simple destruction of opposing forces, a linear understanding of war leads to linear plans, which ultimately rely on chance rather than reality and seek short-sighted solutions.
Success Begins with How We Think
Gaining understanding and solving problems in these complex and non-linear environments requires the Army to set conditions to enable the kind of thinking where leaders are able to generate creative options to thrive in novel contexts. In complex environments, the interaction of opponents amongst themselves and with each other constantly generates novel contexts. Achieving understanding and determining appropriate action in these conditions involves flexible, creative, unbiased, and reflective patterns of thought. These thought patterns allow Army leaders tend to move beyond following pre-established practices or dogmatically adhering to doctrine for efficiency’s sake. When those practices are not appropriate to the situation, flexible and creative thought patterns allow an individual to “strike out in a new direction,” while unprejudiced thinking enables experimentation without bias.[iii] Reflection allows an individual’s tacit understandings and repetitive practices to surface, so he can criticize them in the current context and “make new sense of situations of uncertainty or uniqueness which he may allow himself to experience.”[iv] These thought patterns together, and in unison, are themselves a complex system that enables adaptive behavior in complex environments, but are influenced and often inhibited by one’s environment.
Thinking about Thinking Systematically
Thinking is not something that merely happens in the mind. The environments in which “we live, work, and play continuously and dynamically shape the structure and functional organization and connectivity of our brains - and render us either more or less likely to sustain agility of mind both in immediate or shorter term contexts[.]”[v] In John Haugeland’s Essay, Mind Embodied and Embedded, from his book entitled, Having Thought, he suggests,
If we are to understand the mind as the locus of intelligence, we cannot follow Descartes in regarding it as separable in principle from the body and the world … Broader approaches, freed of that prejudicial commitment, can look again at perception and action, at skillful involvement with public equipment and social organization, and see not principled separation but all sorts of close coupling and functional unity … Mind, therefore, is not incidentally but intimately embodied and intimately embedded in its world.[vi]
Thus, thinking occurs as the interrelationship between mind, body, and environment as, “[h]uman sensing, learning, thought, and feeling are all structured and informed by our body-based interactions with the world around us.”[vii] A systematic and non-linear perspective on thinking reveals a symbiotic relationship between mind, body, and environment; the mind perceives the environment, which triggers bodily responses; those bodily responses have implications on cognitive processes like working memory, flexibility, and creativity, which then determines the way in which an individual perceives and acts within a given environment. From this circuitous and interdependent relationship, thought patterns emerge which can either enable enhanced thinking or result in rigid, linear, simplistic, and more often than not, product-driven behavior.
Just as overtraining can result in orthopedic injuries, so can overuse of the mind result in a reduced cognitive capacity, often a consequence of chronically high work load pressures. Work-related pressures derive from work environments in which competing priorities frequently interrupt task completion; assigned tasks are often both mindful and cognitively challenging; supervisors inflict short deadlines for task completion; and individuals lack control over the timing, pacing, and quality of work output. It is easy to see how working in an environment such as this can result in product-driven behavior and lead to attempts to reduce complexity through simplification, rather than a focus on the process of working through an assigned task or problem set. A 2006 study on work design revealed that intense workload, time pressures, and frequent work interruptions results in professionals who are nearly half as creative as they would be otherwise, given a better work climate.[viii]
The quest for an adaptive force requires an understanding and consideration of the way in which thinking occurs, including scrutiny of Army culture and its climatic impact on individual thought processes. Innovation and adaptability in volatile and uncertain environments requires leaders carefully arrange tactical actions in pursuit of strategic aims while operating comfortably in the complexity of those same environments.[ix] The military must counter its trend toward linearity and simplification by setting cultural and climatic conditions which balance planning requirements with time and space for innovation, reflection, and growth. In doing so, the Army could see the kind of success the Yankees saw once they conceived of the environment for what it was and won their first American League East title in 1976. Perhaps the Army can also unlock the true potential of its leaders, most importantly those tempered by hard-won successes in the contemporary operational environment of the last decade. Only then will the Army display the full potential of the adaptability that it has long sought, and free itself from the shackles of rigid, linear planning and dogmatic adherence to product-driven outcomes.
[i] Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70’s. McMillan Publishing: , 2012. 182.
[iii] Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1997), 45.
[iv] Donald A Schön, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 61.
[v] Wilma Koutstaal, The Agile Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 571.
[vi] John Haugeland, Having Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 236-37
[vii] Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xxvi.
[viii] Kimberly D. Elsbach and Andrew B. Hargadon, ”Enhancing Creativity through ‘Mindless’ Work: A Framework of Workday Design,” Organization Science 17, no. 4 (2006): 471-72.
[ix] Bob Johansen, Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present. (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2007). 51–53.