(P4): Blunting the Insurgency

A slide entitled

  • Brittle systems experience rapid performance collapses, or failures, when events challenge boundaries- David D. Woods
  • “Even if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” –Yogi Berra
  • No plan survives contact with a disaster-in-the-making.- General Law
  • “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”. -Mike Tyson

The first response of a community to an insurgency is to resist. This resistance has the effect of blunting the insurgency.  In this context, blunting means stuff like the following:

  • Forcing the insurgent to alter their plan in small ways.
  • Making them expend resources and energy correcting their mistakes.
  • Wearing out the people who actually conduct the insurgency.
  • Forcing them to reveal their plans prematurely.
  • Forcing large-scale changes in plans that no longer are consistent with available resources or skills.
  • Forcing them to use equipment and approaches that are generally maladaptive.

Successful resistance has the same effect as all chronic stress. As the stress continues, it provokes a chronic maladaptive response pattern from the insurgent. The longer the stress continues, the more maladaptive the response.

But this doesn’t mean much if blunting is all that happens. It is an illusion that resistance can actually restore what was before if the original insurgency was significant.

(P4): Phases in a Strategic Defense

A diagram of phase states and changes. For illustrative purposes only.

  • You have to know what you stand for, not just what you stand against.
    Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.
    Frédéric Bastiat
  • The best defense against sarcasm is to take it literally.
    Vijay Fafat

Because the Strategic Defense is only “chosen” with partial knowledge of its implications, the choice can always be thought of as involving great uncertainty. It is usually only “chosen” because there is no real choice.

There are three phases in a successful Strategic Defense:

1. Blunting the surprise, the invasion, overwhelming force, or whatever constitutes the initial assault.

2. Preparing the counterstroke.

3. Delivering the counterstroke.

(P4): The Strategic Defense

A map of Operation Barbarossa, the German Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941

I believe that our disability community needs to engage for the indefinite future in what is called militarily a Strategic Defense.

The Strategic Defense is usually dictated by circumstances. The specimen example is the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army in World War II. The Soviet Army was entirely surprised by the invasion. For the next 18 months, the Soviets could do essentially nothing but defend and try to slow down the German Army, make the Germans use up their war materials, soldiers and equipment, and slowly prepare a counter-offensive. This counter-offensive was successful and began the long retreat of the German Army to its eventual defeat. A similar pattern had occurred when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and is chronicled in fascinating detail in “War and Peace”. There is no better tribute to ruling class delusion than this novel.

There are other more complex examples. In the American Civil War, the Confederacy deliberately chose a Strategic Defense (basically because they had no culturally acceptable alternative). In the American War in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese chose an especially complex, drawn-out, costly, and dangerous version of the Strategic Defense, ultimately successful, but at a very heavy price.

(P4): Problems with Assessing Future Risk and Uncertainty

A swampy marsh with a fog making it hard to see any distance.

  • There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. -Donald Rumsfeld

Human beings are notoriously poor at estimating risk in the real world. We are bad at it even when we are not affected by bias.  But, we are all affected by bias:

  • Confusing Uncertainty and Risk: We often assume that the risk of uncertain events can be calculated or intuited. That isn’t true in most of the real world. And, to the extent that we use risk calculation to make decisions when dealing with uncertainty, we will make bad decisions. Think Fukushima.
  • Eliminating versus Mitigating Risk: Especially in nonprofit and public organizations, there is a belief that by eliminating the possibility of risk through an HR policy or some threshold limit, that we have actually protected ourselves or the organization. For-profit organizations tend to look for ways to mitigate rather than eliminate risk since they have a better appreciation of how difficult a challenge any uncertainty actually is.
  • Bias in Driven Behavior: Assessing risk and uncertainty when the person or organization is using driven behavior (sex, drugs, and rock and roll for people, hyper-focus in organizations (or cults) as a way to deny uncertainty, fear of liability or some other unseen threat) is guaranteed to give you a false sense of actual uncertainty.
  • Prospect Theory: This is the name for the bias that increases commitment to an already losing strategy. Endless examples……
  • Behaving as though the nonlinear world is actually linear. Examples are the belief in single causes, that effort is proportional to an outcome, that starting points that are close to one another should have closely linked outcomes. There are many more.

Knowing that risk and uncertainty are not the same and that we tend to bias our estimates of them is not enough to prevent the problems mentioned above. We have to actually build our ability to overcome the bias and reflect on our inability to estimate uncertainty in our strategy and our planning.

(P4): What Is a Grand Strategy?

Benton's Detroit mural of small scenes of men doing various kinds of industrial work.

A Grand Strategy is the alignment of your means and ends in your strategy. This alignment requires a clear understanding of all of your resources (not just money or power). It also requires that your values actually be the source of your ends, if not the only source.

The best way to explain your Grand Strategy is as a narrative of some depth and detail. If there are problems in your strategy, they will best be identified as flaws or holes in your narrative.

The other advantage of a narrative as a tool for framing your Grand Strategy is that all narratives focus on process rather than a state. In line with the discussion about complex adaptive systems, a process view provides a deeper understanding of the possibilities and constraints of your strategy. Narrative as a process also makes it easier to see the need for altering during the process by using your Grand Strategy as a guide to change.

A Grand Strategy gives you a place to start in how your strategy deals with the stuff you can control and the stuff you can’t. It allows you to make use of the stuff you can’t control by choosing a strategy that gets benefits from the forces and constraints in the larger world that you can’t really change. Think about the difference between traveling downstream in a river and using its current or traveling upstream in a river and fighting its current.

We often have a grand strategy, but it is implicit and so we don’t see the contradictions in our vision. Articulating and rearticulating our Grand Strategy helps us to avoid outcomes that undermine that vision,

(P4): Some Examples of Bad Strategies

An illuminated medieval page of a beheading with a large audience.

There are two major revolutionary action frameworks and one default outcome:

  • Take over the levers of government and use them for good, in any way you imagine that as possible.
  • Destroy the social framework as completely as you can and start over again from scratch.
  • The default for broken CAS is one form or another of collapse.

An example of the first is Stalinism. An example of the second is Pol Pot. Also, Mao tried to do both more or less at the same time.

The default (collapse) is the typical way that overly complex and brittle systems become simpler (in this case simpler doesn’t mean nicer). Collapse can be anything from a slow cascade over centuries to a financial collapse over a few weeks. Or the asteroid that killed a high percentage of life on earth 65 million years ago.

The first two don’t work. We keep coming back to them because we still, in our heart of hearts, think that our world is a machine and that if we treat it like a machine, we can fix it in the same way we would fix an engine that isn’t working. Maybe we will use new parts and a great mechanic. Maybe we will trash the engine and get a new one.

The default ”strategy” of change produces real simplification, but no control over how the replacement evolves or develops. So, collapse is not really a strategy, but what we get when we do nothing or ineffective somethings.

Our world isn’t a machine. Every time we try to force a complex adaptive system into a complicated one we make the same error that so many others have made and continue to make. You can’t effectively change a complex adaptive system by treating it like a machine. When you try, you make the overall system worse.

Every time.

Also, it isn’t possible to create a complex adaptive system that works and you can’t do anything to make it work. Only an evolutionary context and a significant period of time can make a complex system. To repeat, the way evolution does that is by making a relatively simple adaptive system that works first and then allowing it to evolve.

I used the John Gall Systemantics reference in this post because it is the single best resource there is out there to gain an understanding of why our immediate ideas about changing or improving systems don’t work. If you read nothing else, follow the link to the summary of John Gall’s framework. John’s books are still available, but as far as I can tell, only in paperback.

You will see echoes of John Gall’s insights in the later posts in this series.

Part 4: What Is a Strategy?

A famous, large, incoherent systems diagram of Afghanistan Stability and Counter-Insurgency Dynamics. Impossible to understand.

The slide image is NOT a Strategy!

A strategy is not an operational plan, like the one you might put together for a grant using a logic model. Instead, a strategy is a way to deal with two unavoidable realities:

  • The inherent unpredictability of the future
  • The universal scarcity of resources for what we wish to do

The further we attempt to see into the future, the more uncertainty we face, and the more our decisions to commit resources will be wrong. We try in various ways to work around this reality.

One way is to reduce the scope of the changes we try to make, using such tools as logic models.

When we create an outcome that is easy to measure, we are contracting the possibilities of change, and undermining our ability to create change that is truly strategic, that won’t be washed out by changes and trends in the larger system.

Another way is to describe in some detail the changes we want to seek over the short term while using delusional thinking to describe the ones we hope for further into the future.

A third way is to ignore some or all the larger forces we already know are out there, but which we can’t quantify or parse effectively, or that we believe we can’t change.

And there are many more non-strategic assumptions we make to help us get through our day-to-day life.

(P3): Compounding Error

A fully detailed fossil of a small crocodile-like dinosaur in a dark rock.
Death Of The Dinosaurs

There is a deep similarity between the way we have used fossil fuels and debt to drive our political and financial economies, respectively. And the results of this use are also very similar:

  • There are unavoidable limits to both. These limits are not just an amount (quantity in fuels and bubble size in debt), but that both become increasingly difficult to extract or expand as their use increases.
  • The habit of their use also makes it increasingly difficult to change their use or reduce the level of use. This is a species of addiction. If an addict community’s purpose is to facilitate the procurement and use of some drug, our habits in the use of fossil fuels and debt accomplish the same outcome.
  • Their use is always to allow short-term success and a parallel ignoring of long-term consequences.
  • When the consequences become too great to ignore, very significant costs are required to alleviate these accumulated consequences.
  • At the same time, the costs of dealing with the consequences of short-term, non-strategic use further undermines the original advantage of their use.

This cycle of short-term planning in the use of resources (fossil fuels and debt) and the lack of attention to consequences is fractal. That is, the errors occur systemically at every level. It is a characteristic of our complex adaptive social system, and it has as much to do with the momentum of our ever-increasing loss of control over our future as anything else that we believe to be wrong in our society.

We can’t use the way we created and maintain the degradation of our society to change that degradation in anything other than small ways (that is, in ways that don’t change the strategic degradation but may make it worse).  These small improvements will wash out in the same way that ripples from the splash of a small stone wash out in a river.

There is no logic model to resolve the forces driving our complex adaptive disintegrating social system. We need a strategy, not more short-term operational planning.

(P3): Functional Psychopathy

A political cartoon with a large rich guy eating children.

One of the trends that results from growing corruption of an aging system’s purpose is what I call Functional Psychopathy. This is an unavoidable consequence of relentlessly increasing complexity, though it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.

Forget the clinical syndrome of psychopathy. This process isn’t about someone’s personality.  Instead, examine a basic measure of psychopathic behavior. Such behavior is anytime we treat a person, an animal, a plant, or a thing solely as a vehicle for the gratification of our needs, with no thought to the impact of our actions on the person, animal, plant, or thing.

Think of stepping on ants while walking in the woods on a nice summer day.  Or eating anything. Or laying off 1,000 people. Or using drones that kill civilians while targeting a terrorist. Or protecting yourself with a civilian shield while operating as a terrorist. Or auctioning human beings as slaves. Or purposefully addicting people for personal income.  Or cutting personal supports to people with significant disabilities to make the money available for a market purpose. Or any one of 10,000 other acts we do in order to get through the daily circumstances of our lives.

Functional Psychopathy increases relentlessly as complex systems age.

(P3): The Struggle of Two Missions

A path dividing into two with trees on the side of a dirt road

Another way of thinking about the corruption of purpose as complex systems age requires that we think of complex systems as having two core missions:

  1. The Purpose of the System or the Original Mission
  2. Staying Alive!

Over the aging of every complex system, the second mission gradually comes to dominate over the first. This systematic iterative alteration of the organization’s mission parallels both the potential for moral corruption and the corruption of purpose that is the unavoidable result of complex system aging.

This happens to each of us (how much more time do we spend on maintenance and repair of ourselves as we age?), but is most obvious in organizations:

  • Increase in bureaucracy, process requirements,
  • Increase in hierarchy and politics
  • Increase in management costs
  • All resulting in the degradation of actual customer or service support and
  • Eventually, the primacy of money/power over everything else