The Wall St. Journal Update on Imperial Class

They don’t call it that, of course, but check out Etihad’s new “Residence” at the front of their A380s:

  • $20,000 one-way London to Abu Dhabi
  • Includes ensuite toilet and shower facilities, with unlimited water
  • Savoy-trained butler, dedicated to your suite, who will contact you before the flight to discuss your particular needs
  • Half of the flights in January are already sold out

As the Journal’s Scott McCartney notes (paywall), they aren’t competing against other airlines’ first class offerings but against private jets, which I speculated would be one of the defining characteristics of Imperial Class (see other posts below):

Airlines around the world are one-upping each other on first-class perks to attract big spenders and lure people away from private jets, which may cost $100,000 to get to New York from the Middle East and require a fuel stop. Continue reading

A quick morning exercise

For those with access to the Wall St. Journal.  Last Friday, Joe Queenan had what was supposed, I guess, to be a light and airy column, but I think it was quite profound. In fact, it may be the best column on business I’ve seen this year, those in this blog excepted, of course.

Here’s the last paragraph of “Cosmetic Change? Joe Queenan Wants Us to Get Real” (paywall):

So here’s my advice to airlines: If you want to make the public happy, try building planes designed to accommodate human beings. Try offering movies that someone has actually heard of. Try brewing coffee someone might want to drink. Try service with a smile.

So your exercise for the day is to interpret this in cheng / chi terms.  To refresh your memory, here are a couple of quotes from Patterns:

Employ cheng and ch’i maneuvers to quickly and unexpectedly hurl strength against weaknesses. (13)

Cheng/ch’i maneuver schemes were employed by early commanders to expose adversary vulnerabilities and weaknesses (a la cheng) for exploitation and decisive stroke (via ch’i). (14)

And there’s always the sixth chapter of Certain to Win. Good luck!

Schwerpunkt: Be Careful What You Wish For

Boyd observed that:

Schwerpunkt acts as a center or axis or harmonizing agent that is used to help shape commitment and convey or carry out intent at all levels from theater to platoon, hence an image around which … initiative of many subordinates is harmonized with superior intent. In this sense Schwerpunkt can be thought of as … a medium to realize superior intent without impeding initiative of many subordinates, hence a medium through which subordinate initiative is implicitly connected to superior intent. Patterns of Conflict, 78.

As you can see, the Schwerpunkt concept is a powerful leadership tool, but be careful that you don’t use it to lead your organization over a cliff. Continue reading

Be a cult

Visualize a cult. You probably see:

  • An ideology that seems incredible — even silly — to outsiders but that cult members will defend to their deaths. Data that contradict the ideology will either be interpreted to fit (that is, be explained away), or, if this should prove impossible, will either be ignored or denied.
  • A leader whose pronouncements reveal and interpret the ideology to cult members and whose every utterance, therefore, must be embraced and every command fulfilled, regardless of the cost or outcome.

Why in the world, you ask yourself, would sane human beings belong to cults, much less fashion their organizations in such a way? Cults, like all closed systems, generate entropy/disorder that mounts up inside until it makes them vulnerable to competitors or causes them to rip apart. On the other hand, there’s something successful about this model because down through history, there doesn’t appear to have been any shortage of them.

An article in this month’s The Atlantic, “Turning customers into cultists,” suggests an explanation. Many cults offer their members two things often missing in their lives, identity and community. Prophets and esoteric dogma are means for achieving these, but are not in themselves strictly necessary. As a study of the Unification Church (the “Moonies”) concluded, “The cult inculcated new members through simple techniques: weekend retreats, deep conversations, shared meals, and, most seductive, an environment of love and support.”

Even the Peoples Temple (Jim Jones), Branch Davidians (David Koresh), and Heaven’s Gate (Marshall Applewhite), whose members did demonstrate their loyalty with their lives, provided this strong sense of identity and community.

Descriptions like these should remind you of Einheit, the foundation of Boyd’s organizational climate. Literally translated, it means “one-ness.” Boyd used “mutual trust,” and other connotations include harmony, common outlook, and cohesion. Its importance in military operations cannot be overstated. Einheit is what moves people to climb out of trenches and march in straight lines towards certain death, as 19,000 British soldiers did on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.

Discussions of cultism in business inevitably lead to Apple (Disclosure: I’m writing this on my 2008 MacBook, which still works so well that I can’t convince my wife I need to replace it). From a business standpoint, though, it would be a mistake to regard the company itself, Apple, Inc., as a cult, the late Steve Jobs and its famously secretive culture notwithstanding.  Success in business requires attracting millions of customers, that is, people who are not and never will become members of the company itself.

So the genius of Apple was to recognize that the concept of “member of the cult” needed to be broadened to include not only employees of the company but its customers as well.  There’s even a website, The Cult of Mac” (“Breaking news for Apple fans.”) The Atlantic article gives insight into how this was done. In Boyd’s terminology, we might say that they achieved a high degree of Einheit with all those Apple fanboys and fangirls.

As I suggested in chapter 6 of Certain to Win, one way to do this is to play the cheng / chi game: Give them what they want and expect — good performance, reliability, beautiful design, etc. — but then throw in something they don’t, like an intuitive operating systems (with free upgrades), a well-integrated ecosystem, responsive customer service, etc.  Even an Apple decal for your car. And perhaps most important, the feeling that you’ve become a member of a family of similarly enlightened beings.

The challenge for Apple will be to preserve this cult-like relationship with its customers. As a company grows and so loses the advantages of exclusivity, the benefits of being identified as a cult member become diluted. An Apple tag line from years ago was “Think different” (to which an industry commentator once appended “so long as you think like Steve.”) But there’s increasingly less cachet to thinking different if everybody else is thinking the exact same way.  My guess, unfortunately, is that over time Apple will shift its focus to market share and financial results and become just another company.


Then there was only Southwest

One of the last two airlines that focused first on customers gave up the ghost yesterday. JetBlue announced that it will start charging for checked bags in 2015 and will be cutting passenger leg room by roughly 5% beginning in 2016. In explaining these moves, airline execs pointed to the need to satisfy the interests of the financial community:

JetBlue said its new steps and improvements in other projects would increase annual operating income by about $450 million by 2017, including $200 million from the new fare classes and $100 million annually from the new seats. … While the discount carrier has earned plaudits from customers, its financial performance has lagged behind rivals. Analysts have pressed the carrier for bag fees and tighter seating, saying it gave fliers too much for too little. … [JetBlue CEO Robin] Hayes said in an interview that the changes will improve investors’ returns without scaring away customers. “We’re very proud of our customer-first model, but we need it to deliver a similar level of return as other models,” he said. “JetBlue to add bag fees, reduce legroom,” WSJ, 11/20/14 (paywall) Continue reading

OODA loops in football

Whenever the subject of OODA loops in football comes up, people usually think of a running back shifting direction to confuse tacklers, or a quick-thinking quarterback picking up a blitz, or the coach adjusting tactics to take advantages of defenders’ weaknesses.  These are all good, but they are really examples of “operating inside the OODA loop,” rather than of the “loop” itself.

Those of you with access to today’s Wall St. J. should go check out Kevin Clark’s article, “The Green Bay Packers’ New Workout Plan.”  (paywall)  There you’ll find a good example of the other piece of the OODA “loop,” the actual loop part that goes through the cycle of observe, orient, decide, act, then observe again (and so on).  “Operating inside the OODA loop,” on the other hand, mainly involves the implicit guidance and control link from orientation to action. As I explain in Boyd’s “Real OODA Loop,” both of these processes are working all the time, but depending on what you’re doing, one or the other will take precedence. and it’s worth always keeping in mind that the ability to use implicit guidance and control is not magic but (like real magic) comes from repeated O-to-O-to-D-to-A learning loops.

Anyway, you can download “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop,” as well as all of Boyd’s briefings and lots of other stuff from our Articles page.

Returning to the NFL, here’s what caught my attention:

“Chip [Kelly, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles] is doing what Chip always does: He reads the information. He gets the feedback from every player, from all the data he gets, all the different sports science things we do,” said Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. “He adjusts daily, weekly. We’re always moving the target to make sure that the players are at the optimal spot on Sunday.” (Emphasis added)

Does it guarantee victory? Of course not — the Eagles have lost three games this season — but Kelly’s team is on top of the NFC East, so it might be reasonable to think that he’s getting the most out of the players he has. And by the way, of the 32 teams in the NFL, only two have better records than the Eagles (Cards at 9-1 and Pats at 8-2).

New version of “Evolutionary Epistmology”

A “personal view,” in the author’s words, of John Boyd’s “Destruction and Creation” and its “centrality to the OODA loop.” In V2.3, dated September 2014, Chuck Spinney has added a new slide 21 on “not-so-brilliant” snowmobiles and made minor changes after slide 40.

As Chuck notes on Slide 21, “It never hurts to remind ourselves that most ‘New Concept Descriptions’ or ‘New Startups’ do not work so well in the real world.” If you are smart about it, this is a good thing:

The presence and production of mismatches are what sustain and nourish the enterprise of science, engineering, and technology, hence keep it alive and ongoing—otherwise there would be no basis for it to continue. Conceptual Spiral 23

In other words, out in that same real world, Chuck’s observation applies to all sides. So, who is going to win?

Download Evolutionary Epistemology as well as all of Boyd’s briefings (and my scintillating exegesis of Conceptual Spiral) from our Articles page (1.8 MB PDF).

A Boydian Distribution?

I’m not sure what to do with this article about the Tracy-Widom distribution, but it seems like it might contribute to Boyd’s philosophy of conflict on several levels. I’ll offer it in the spirit that Boyd spent a lot of time mining physics and biology for parts to use in his snowmobiles.

The article is “At the Far Ends of a New Universal Law,” by Natalie Wolchover in the October 15th edition of Quanta Magazine.

Usually I’m skeptical about applying physical or statistical concepts to the problems of strategy because these laws assume that the particles don’t behave like participants in a conflict, i.e., that they don’t lie, engage in deception, try to panic the scientists, and so on. As Boyd put it, on chart 132 of Patterns, instead of choosing the alternative that you think will be the most effective, select the one that your opponent will least expect, ideally something your opponent thinks is impossible. Do this just for the panic effect if nothing else.  Typically, particles obeying the laws of physics don’t do this. Continue reading

Whence Fingerspitzengefuehl?

Try this: Hold your right arm out in front of you, palm up. Unless you’ve been injured, you should be able to flex your elbow easily 150 or more degrees so that your hand touches your right shoulder. Now hold it back out straight, and keeping your palm up, try to bend your elbow the other way.  How far down can you go? For me the answer is practically zero degrees. There are people, however, who can go down some distance, as much as 10 degrees.

Now let’s suppose that it’s important for you to develop the ability to go down 10 degrees, say for some special mission. How much practice would it take for you to get your elbow to to do this (holding your palm up)? Would 10,000 hours do the trick?

A quick glance at the physiology of the elbow should convince you that there is no amount of practice that would work. Some sort of surgery would be your only option.

Continue reading

What’s luck got to do with it?

One of the things that used to drive Boyd nuts was trusting to “luck”: Once you’ve run through your bag of tricks, you give up and “trust to luck.” We’ve done all we can. It’s out of our hands now.

Boyd would insist that you never do this, that you keep on building snowmobiles and learning from the results right up until the end. Keep your team from “coming unglued,” as he would put it. This is not luck but lots of clear thinking, hard work, and leadership before and during the conflict.

A little of this flavor comes from a recent interview in The Guardian by Peter Thiel, of “monopoly is good” (WSJ — paywall) fame. I had never thought of “luck” as being an atheistic god, but he may have a point:

What I do think is that as a society we attribute too much to luck. Luck is like an atheistic word for God: we ascribe things to it that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. As a venture capitalist, I think one of the most toxic things to do is to treat the people I’m investing in as lottery tickets where I say: “Well I don’t know if your business is going to work. It might, it might not.” I think that’s a horrible way to treat people. The anti-lottery ticket approach is to try to achieve a high level of conviction, to ask: “Is this a business that I have enough confidence in that I would consider joining it myself?”

In other words, Fingerspitzengefühl as an antidote to “luck.” I think this is an interpretation that Boyd would have liked.

“Uncertainty” is reality; it’s the climate of all competition, and like climate, it affects all competitors. So as Richards’ Third Law states:

If you lost because of luck, you were a loser going in.

It would be like a general blaming his debacle on rain.

Uncertainty is really nasty stuff, so you don’t want to leave it to chance. The essence of Boyd’s approach to tactics is that you don’t have to wait on acts of God — you can create the climate of uncertainty yourself, you can build your own Fog of War Machine.