2008/12/04

Development of strategies

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I am in a seemingly perpetual conflict with the ways of many 'strategic' thinkers.

Be they political pundits, general officers, government officials, authors or simply bloggers.

There are different ways how to develop a strategy and some of these ways were even codified. The straw that broke the camel's back for this blog story was this:
"In the past I have stressed the importance of thinking strategically before acting and have emphasized the idea that any strategy must address The Essence of Strategy-four critical questions based on single words:

* Where-do you intend to be at a time point in the future? (Future Picture)
* What-are you going to put your resources against? (Systems and Centers of Gravity)
* How-and in what time span are you going to apply your resources? (Parallel Attack)
* Exit-for every part of your plan? (Finish with Finesse)"
That sounds rather sound, but it's also utterly optimistic.

It's a demonstration of the "we can do that" attitude. This attitude is inappropriate for thinking at that decision level. "We can do that" is for NCOs and enlisted personnel.

The U.S.Americans use their "METT-TC" mnemonic to help in operations planning - especially on tactical and operational levels. It has an important element; "e" - enemy. That may be considered as just enemy location, strength and intent. Another important factor are the reaction alternatives of the enemy. You need to look at what effect your actions might have on the enemy - including his reactions to thwart your plan and including his evasive actions to reduce the effect of your plan.

Furthermore, your enemy might actually be capable to defeat you (imagine that!), which turns any "We can do that" background in strategic thinking into a recipe for disaster.

It's simply not enough to set a goal for the future and then work to achieve it.
We need to think thoroughly about our goal in the first place. That's the greatest and most important challenge in strategy development.

Problem One: Costs

The destruction of wealth, health and life needs to be justifiable, so the lost input is ALWAYS an important factor in strategy development. The Powell-Weinberger doctrine circumvented this necessity by allowing only unavoidable and very limited wars, a flawed simplification of the decision-making.

Afghanistan is a complicated case, and our information about that war is incomplete and questionable today (for absolutely everyone).

Let's use an example that we know a lot about: The First World War

Look at the strategy development guide from the quoted example.

There's apparently nothing in it to prevent the bloodshed, economic waste and the doom of empires (pretty much all six involved empires were broken, some less obviously than others) that characterized the First World War.
(I assume strongly that the first 'where' paragraph does not include fiscal and biological health of the own nation, as this would be untypical for such a question.)

The neglect of "costs" leads to disastrous results. Imagine a corporation invests without looking at the cost of the investment!
The "Loss aversion"/"Sunk costs" problem is a terrible trapdoor for those who look at costs the wrong way. Costs need to be considered for decision-making, but never sunk costs!

Problem Two: Enemy countermeasures

'We want to achieve an end-state - how do we do that?' - That's not enough.
"How will the opponent react?" is a very important question - a question that's too easily ignored due to the belief in the own overwhelming capabilities or it's being dismissed as impossible to predict.

The latter argument is somehow right, but it doesn't de-value the identification of possible opponent's reactions - especially if their success can be predicted.
The previous post about techno-tactical innovations to counter a technical innovation offers such promising reaction options that need to be considered in advance.

Again, a well-known historical example: I wrote an article (never published) about the Battle of Britain several years ago. I was puzzled by the standard claim in many history books and articles that the Luftwaffe pursued the wrong strategy, that it should have continued to bomb Fighter Cmd airfields.
That's wrong in my opinion, the Luftwaffe was (without much strategic thought) doing the (militarily, not morally) right thing. The whole rationale is too long for this blog post, the summary is this: It was impossible to defeat the Fighter Cmd by bombing its airfields. The Luftwaffe would have reached a RAF pain threshold at which the British fighters were re-deployed farther north, enabling them to reduce the combat activity to a sustainable level. The identification of this possible reaction (and the insight that this reaction would have ruined the plan) was very important. Göring apparently decided to discontinue the airfield bombing without such thinking, though.

The effects of air attacks on airfields were simply not mandatory - the opponent was able to evade these effects or render them irrelevant by a simple re-deployment of forces.

Some goals are simply impossible to enforce - even though that doesn't need to mean that you will be/were defeated. A goal might appear feasible with your plan, but it can become impossible to achieve once the opponent parries/dodges your action.


I'm a skeptic, no optimist. Optimists should not devise strategies (except for their own private business). Neutral minds should decide on strategies, supported by both optimists and skeptics.

We need to consider the costs (drawbacks) before we set our goals (and need to revisit this decision very often afterwards).
We need to consider the possible reactions of the opponent. The pursuit of a plan that can obviously be dodged is rarely a good idea.
A "We can do that" optimism needs to be banned from higher-level decision-making, it does only fit into the realms of NCOs.
Optimism (instead of neutrality) in decision-making adds to the probability of excessive costs and defeat.

Sven Ortmann

1 comment:

  1. Sven : so unfortunate that our species aren't exactly the most popular at parties. Your posts are illuminating, recht schönen dank.

    ReplyDelete

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