(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

(P3): The Corruption of System Purpose

A slide about Systematic Corruption (or endemic corruption). Factors listed are, Conflicting Incentives, Discretionary Powers, Monopolistic Powers, Lack of Transparency, Low Pay, and Culture of Impunity.

There are many more signs of system aging than the reasonably obvious ones I’ve discussed so far. The next few posts will identify some, especially those which trigger “solutions” that don’t actually “solve” the targeted problem. The first is that systems can be corrupt, not just people.

We tend to think that corruption is an ethical or criminal matter resulting from a moral failure. As a society, moral and law enforcement solutions are the only ones we actively support to such problems. This is a mistake in our thinking because there is a larger impact of such moral corruption on the complex system in which the corruption occurs. Additionally, the aging of complex systems creates a type of corruption of purpose even if, somehow, we are able to stop all criminal and moral corruption.

On its own, typical moral corruption gradually taints every transaction of a complex system, even when the people involved in the transactions are not participants in the moral corruption.  This is obvious in financial corruption but also occurs when values and ethics are corrupted.

Also, complex system corruption occurs as a result of the aging process arising as system resources increase and are stored for later use. These resources (regardless of type) begin to be used increasingly for maintenance, repair, personal gratification, and personal power, undermining the purpose of the system.  This process also creates an affordance that permits more extensive corruption, creating a vicious feedback loop.

(P3): Models Summary

Standard Model Diagram of a Complex Adaptive System. Nothing Special in the Diagram.
Abstract CAS Model

In both of these models, note the following:

  • Every complex system has a history, and there is no way to avoid the effects of that history. This means:
  • You can’t go back to the beginning.
  • You can’t even correct something and try again. There are no do-overs. The effects of history always become part of the aging of the system.
  • You can improve part of the system, like getting a hip replacement when arthritis impedes the use of your leg, but
  • You (and any complex system) is still aging.
  • Improving the function of a complex system makes it more complex and makes the use of affordances more difficult and resource intensive.
  • Eventually, the sum of all this is some kind of collapse. When and how are not predictable, but all complex systems collapse, slowly or quickly.

A good “concrete” example of the overall process of complex system aging is the development and current state of the US freeway system.

I am old enough to remember when the freeway system was built. I was in elementary school and I saw the building process because my extended family all lived in Detroit, while my father worked at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan. Before the freeway was built it took us nearly 4 hours to drive from Midland to our relatives’ homes. We had a long trip through small towns with two-lane 25mph roadways and stoplights. In bad weather, it was worse.

The first time we drove the freeway to Detroit, it took us less than one and a half hours. It seemed like a miracle. For a long time, the only problem was the increased use of the freeway by other drivers as they got more used to the idea of a freeway and its convenience.

Then the population grew, the number of people who used cars grew, the use of freeways for commutes allowed people to live further from their jobs, etc. So there were traffic slowdowns that increased the length of time it took us to drive to Detroit, and we had to be more careful when we made these trips so we wouldn’t run into the commuter traffic. And, of course, the increase in traffic density led to accidents that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

Then the roads needed repairs and maintenance, partly because of their increased use.  We all know this led to our current experience of freeways, not a miracle, but an increasingly useless tool which we must use, like airplanes.

If it was possible, we could simply eliminate the entire freeway system and start over again from scratch. We could use modern materials that wouldn’t break down as fast, we could have more lanes, we could rethink the way we use freeways.

But of course, we can’t do that. And the core reason why we can’t start over again from scratch is that we must use the freeway every single day without fail. And buying an entirely new land base for the freeway would destroy the economic system that was built around the existence of the freeway. And all that concrete would have to be removed before the land the current freeway system is on could be used for any economic purpose. And all that concrete would have to be transported and deposited somewhere.

If all of this seems obvious now, the question you should ask yourself is why it wasn’t obvious from the beginning?

(P3): Developmental Model of Aging

A simple model of A Developing Network; The three frames are an Infant and it's developing action abilities; An Affordance Interface, and it's feedback loop between Developing Skills and the Evolving Interface; and The World and it's constant Unpredictable Reconfiguration.
The infant as Developing Network

This model uses the commonly observed process of infant development as an analog for the growth of a complex system.

Infants are surrounded by a large, more or less infinite environment of possibilities. But it is in the nature of developing infants that the vast majority of these possibilities are of no interest and do not at any given moment contribute to the infant’s development. Instead only certain parts of the environment are of interest to the infant and these are exactly what the infant needs to engage with in order to further current development.

These parts ready for engagement are called “affordances” because they allow for action by the infant that supports the infant’s current development.

As development continues, those parts of the environment that can act as affordances shift because of the growing competence of the infant and their consequent shift in focus and interest. So, the infant’s “affordance interface” is constantly shifting as development occurs, and exactly tracks the current development of the child.

The deep part of this model is that even if you are 90 years old, you are still doing what the infant is doing, albeit at a different functional level and with a different set of strengths and weaknesses (i.e., a different affordance interface).