Strategy, The Art of Everything Else

by Cameron Schaefer on February 16, 2011

“War does not escape the laws of our old friend Hegel. It is in a state of perpetual becoming.” -Robert Saint-Loup, 1916 in Letter to Proust

It seems to me that part of the nature of strategy is that one must come to it indirectly.

It’s like the deer that you spot in the field behind your house when you’re a kid.  You want so badly to run right up to it, yet if you do so you’ll quickly scare it away.  So you begin walking, slowly, quietly…tangentially.  You walk in circle that imperceptibly decreases in its diameter over time.  You stalk, painstakingly aware of your own presence and all of the unintended consequences it brings to the situation, its foreignness. Your every move has the potential to shatter a fragile ecosystem.  Of course, the deer inevitably runs, it always does.  You step on a twig, the wind changes direction and the creature catches your scent, reality changes before you can lock the moment in time.  But there is always a brief instant before the deer escapes that both of you freeze and lock eyes, the hair stands on both of your necks and you know that you’ve gotten closer than you were supposed to get…a little closer than the last time.

When devising strategy one is chasing after a constantly-changing reality.  We live in a state of, as Boyd put it, perpetual novelty.  The world around us provides us with an infinite amount of data or inputs that we must try to filter in some sort of intelligent manner.  To do so we create mental models or paradigms through which we filter the world in an effort to provide a coherent narrative.  “What’s going on here?” is often an incredibly difficult question to answer when posed at a global or even national level.  Like the deer in the field, the perfect answer to that question, or a completely perfect match to reality is impossible to pin down – the second you try, reality changes, making some part of your strategy irrelevant.  All one can hope for is to get a little closer than the last time.

Two key themes in the work of John Boyd were novelty and “the pervasive presence of uncertainty.”.

“If uncertainty is indeed pervasive, it is imperative for organizations to create the ability to operate comfortably in this condition: in fact, they need to embrace it and turn the capacity to their advantage by introducing uncertainty and novelty into the environment themselves” (Osinga 103).

Introduce additional uncertainty and novelty?  Actually, yes.  Boyd understood that it was the very presence of these mismatches with reality that served as the creative engine for science, engineering and technology.  For any organization, the constant iteration of test, failure and adaptation is the vital process to growth and success.  Unfortunately, in an attempt to grow, organizations often aim their focus inward, rather than outward – narrowing their focus rather than broadening it.  In doing so they unknowingly tighten the noose around their collective necks.

Last winter in a post entitled, “Science, Defence and Strategy,” Adam Elkus, a student of strategy many orders of magnitude higher than myself, pointed out the dangers of this inward-oriented thinking that Boyd constantly alluded to in his writings.

In Boyd’s paper “Destruction and Creation,” the widely read Colonel synthesized mathematicians Kurt Gödel and Werner Heisenberg’s insights in pointing out that inward-oriented efforts to force observed reality to mesh with internally derived concepts only increase chaos and destruction. It is impossible to determine the consistency and character of an abstract system within itself (See John R. Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” September 3, 1976).  Boyd noted that this had potentially dire consequences for rigid closed systems:

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all observed natural processes generate entropy. From this law it follows that entropy must increase in any closed system—or, for that matter, in any system that cannot communicate in an ordered fashion with other systems or environments external to itself. Accordingly, whenever we attempt to do work or take action inside such a system—a concept and its match-up with reality—we should anticipate an increase in entropy hence an increase in confusion and disorder. Naturally, this means we cannot determine the character or nature (consistency) of such a system within itself, since the system is moving irreversibly toward a higher, yet unknown, state of confusion and disorder. …Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.”

An inward-oriented or single-minded approach to strategy is the equivalent of running straight at the deer. It helps people feel like a lot of work is being done, lots of motion, lots of chaos, but no real progress being made.  Due to persistant novelty, the direct approach simply leaves one boxing the air.

To deal with this problem Boyd advocated looking outside the system, drawing on seemingly unrelated disciplines and fields, creating new mental models to closer match reality.  Of course, they would soon need to be shattered and re-created or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant, a constant cycle of destruction and creation.  Or as Elkus put it,

We cannot escape from chaos, rather we are most successful when we embrace it by shattering the rigid mental patterns that have built up and then synthesize the new realities we observe to create a new understanding. Such a process of structuring, dissolving, restructuring, and dissolving again must be repeated endlessly.

This Boydian method of adapation, beautifully codified in the OODA Loop, incorporated science, but more closely approximated the often chaotic, creative impulses of art.  The uncertainty of the world, especially when those pesky humans are involved, makes a completely scientific or analytical approach quite incomplete.

LCDR B.J. Armstrong, USN highlighted in a recent USNI post (h/t ZenPundit) that Boyd wasn’t the only one approached strategy in this manner.  Discussing the teaching philosophy of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, Armstrong wrote,

“In his book ‘Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land,’ published in 1911, Mahan compared naval officers to artists.  He wrote that artists had to learn certain techniques, mediums and certain skills, but that wasn’t what made their artwork great.  In the end ‘art, out of materials which it finds about, creates new forms in endless variety,’ artists take those foundation basics and then mix and match them based on inspiration and experience to create a masterpiece.  History helps us understand that frequently there are no right answers to military questions of strategy or leadership.  There are only ‘sound conclusions,’ which are drawn from understanding basics and history.”

Approaching strategy in an indirect fashion, as more of an art than science may make some uneasy, specifically those who find safe haven in the concreteness of checklists and formulas.  Yet, the nature of strategy reflects the nature of the world.  It is infinitely complex, it is always changing and it is filled with humans that often do irrational things.  Literature (see Charles Hill) and psychology have as much of a place at the strategy table as military history…as do mathematics, physics, political science and technology.  So, when asking, “what must one study to be a great strategist?” the answer seems to be, “everything else.”



“Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd” by Frans P.B. Osinga

“Destruction and Creation” by John R. Boyd

“Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order” by Charles Hill

Thanks to Crispin BurkeMark Safranski and Shlok Vaidya for all taking a look at this post as it evolved and giving me some great discussion and feedback.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

J. Scott March 4, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Cameron, Excellent and enlightening post! Thanks for sharing. Your closing paragraph is spot-on accurate, but a constant challenge.

Fred leland March 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Very nicely done and as J. Scot says Spot on! There is indeed an art to strategy. Running straight at the deer (great analogy), will leave you with the “”deer in the headlights look on your face, when it comes to strategy. Great post.

Cameron Schaefer March 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm

@ Scott & Fred,

Thanks for the kind words gentlemen – means a great deal coming from experienced Boyd thinkers!

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