Shaping and Adapting

While leading his company in Afghanistan, Marine Major Paul Tremblay was ordered to clear a much larger Taliban force that was defending an area of rugged terrain. Ordinarily, such terrain would favor the defense, not to mention the numbers problem.  Major Tremblay, however, fashioned a plan of attack based on the notion of “operating inside the OODA loop,” where relative numbers are much less relevant.

Chuck Spinney picks up the story:

Major Tremblay did not know Colonel Boyd but has been aware of his briefings since he was a 2nd Lieutenant at the Marine Corps Basic School. He is the only officer I know who has studied and applied Colonel Boyd’s ideas in a premeditated way in designing and leading a combat operation. His reinforced company level attack on the Taliban was a stunning success and based on radio intercepts, it became clear he penetrated his adversary’s OODA loops and collapsed the opposing units into confusion and disorder, exactly as Boyd predicted.  His thesis does not discuss this operation.

I’ve uploaded Major Tremblay’s recently completed master’s thesis (517 KB PDF). It’s a brilliant piece of work. Quoting Chuck, again:

P.J. Tremblay’s thesis aims to clarify what is perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s theory of interacting OODA loops: the confusion of absolute speed with relative quickness, particularly as it applies to agility in Orientation and Re-Orientation. Tremblay’s aim is to improve the Marine Corps training curriculum by clarifying Boyd’s ideas and laying out a way to better incorporate them in progressively more comprehensive ways at each level in the Marine Corps’ educational system, from the lowest to the highest level.

PJ’s thesis is a case study in the kind of intellectual development and stimulation that John Boyd was trying to achieve by leaving the Marine Corps Research Center with the complete archive of his briefings and note. Boyd, an honorary Marine, would say, “Semper Fi, PJ.”

Chuck has posted the complete introduction to Maj. Tremblay’s thesis on his blog.

Is Microsoft done?

The main lesson [new tech firms] will draw is that it was too protective, for too long, of its main franchise, which led it to ignore threats that eventually became unignorable.

So The Economist wrote in its April 4 piece, “Microsoft at middle age — opening windows” (pp. 59-60).

It’s a common analysis, but is it fair?

The Economist summarizes its case: From the mid-1990s until Steve Ballmer retired last year, “Everything Microsoft did had to strengthen Windows, to make it ever more crushingly dominant.” Readers familiar with Boyd’s organizational climate will recognize a Schwerpunkt.

The Economist claims that “many of the company’s best innovations were killed because of this ‘strategy tax.'”

On the other hand, because they were killed, it’s impossible to know whether they would have been “best.”  Rather than engage in alternative histories, let’s look to the future.  Has this strategy locked Microsoft into a fading platform, dooming it to share the fates of other once-towering technological giants like Kodak, Xerox, and Polaroid? I don’t think so. Continue reading

The age of the mercenary

I think I’m getting a couple of predictions right. One is that the legacy airlines will get out of the coach class business. A recent article in the Wall St. Journal pointed out that as airlines shrink not only the size of seats in coach but also how many of them they install, their profits go up. So just draw the obvious conclusion. (My last post on this phenomenon is here.)

Another is that modern warfare will be privatized. This argument, which I first made in my 2005 bestseller, Neither Shall the Sword, suggested that state armies are great for fighting other state armies but not so good at the everything else called “fourth generation warfare.” Because the only state armies that the United States is going to fight are very weak — think Iraq, Grenada, and so on — we can shrink our national military forces but we still need something else to fill the gap, and I argued that the best we can do is use market forces to fill this gap for us.

Lo and behold, as we say in the prediction business, it has come to pass.  As former US Army paratrooper and later mercenary Sean McFate reports in an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “In Iraq half of the personnel in war zones were contracted, and in Afghanistan it was closer to 70 percent. America may fight future wars mainly with contractors.” So we need to get thinking about how best to manage this process to serve the national interest. McFate and I came to the same conclusion: “Multibillion dollar industries don’t just evaporate, and outlawing private security forces won’t work. Relying on the market is the best way to avoid a return to the medieval chaos of armies for hire.”

In other words, except for a small public component to operate our nuclear deterrent force, and perform a few other missions, the government should run the league but not field a team (as I wrote back in 2005 — and “bestseller” should be considered in its relative sense.)

The right way to set goals

Or at least a better way than just picking a suspiciously round number — increase sales by 15% — out of thin air.

The Wall St. J. reports that Toyota has an “ambitious  goal of doubling sales and production to 2 million vehicles” in China.

What does this mean? Are they building new factories, slashing prices, piling on subsidies? Like they did shortly after the turn of the new millennium, leading to rampant quality problems?

Here’s what “a person at Toyota” said about this goal in that same article:

In China, Toyota is a follower. We’re trying to catch up to rivals. Instead of chasing sales and production volume, we want to focus on Toyota-like products to build our position. There is no way we can compete by suddenly making huge investments to build excessive production facilities. Yoko Kubota, “Toyota to Invest $1.4 Billion to Meet Growing U.S., China Demand” WSJ, April 15, 2015

As Boyd insisted, goals, plans and the like are just intentions. Wants. “Be nice ifs …” Strategy, then, is the art of managing those intentions — discarding plans and creating new ones, for example, to shape and respond to an everchanging and incompletely understood world — in order to achieve our objectives, often at the expense of our opponents or competitors.

As he put it:

What is strategy? A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests. Strategic Game, 58

Just one word for the new graduate

Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Neuroplasticity.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

This is another in a series of posts promoting, or at least complicating, our understanding of Orientation because Orientation is, after all, the Schwerpunkt.

In fact, if I had to boil Boyd’s philosophy down to one idea, it might be to ensure that your orientation makes more accurate forecasts than those of your opponents. If we’re talking business competition, substitute “customers” for “opponents.” Continue reading

Spinney: Why I wrote “Evolutionary Epistemology”

A reader asked about the reference to “Campbell” on slide 38, “Basic Assumptions of Different Orientations,” of Evolutionary Epistemology, whether this was Joseph Campbell, the late American author and scholar of myths. Chuck’s reply:

The Campbell I am referring to is Donald T Campbell. Curiously, I came up with the term “evolutionary epistemology” as a title by myself, when I was asked to brief Boyd’s D&C paper shortly after he died in 1997. This was to a strategy class at the Naval War College. Boyd never heard the term from my lips and I do not recall him ever using it. We often referred to his paper as his learning theory. I remember telling someone that this is really a paper about epistemology.

I added some things to the briefing that Boyd did not talk about in his lecture (especially, the evolution of cosmology) and while working on that part, it came to me that that Boyd’s paper was really about the evolution of epistemology. I am using the term “evolution” in a strict biological sense. So, I coined the the name of the briefing to distinguish it from John’s and to make clear that it was my interpretation of John’s work.

Later someone told me I was discussing things very similar to the work of Donald T. Campbell. And it turns out that Campbell, a social scientist, coined the term in the 1960s. I never heard of him, although he taught at my university (Lehigh), albeit after I had graduated!!!! I did a library search and came up with an article he wrote in 1974 with the same title, which you will find in Chapter II of a book of essays: Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge edited by Radnitzky and Barley (Open Court 1987). This book comes at the evolutionary nature from an entirely different perspective and there is no mention of Heisenberg, Gödel, or the 2nd Law. But many of the ideas overlap and are compatible with each other.

I do not think Boyd was familiar with Donald Campbell’s work, and I only came across it by accident after I prepared the briefing. So, since I evolved the title independently, I decided to keep it. But Campbell’s work (which I have not reviewed in many years) seemed consistent with Boyd’s.

By the way, lots of people were working on the ideas Boyd was exploring. My own favorite remains Jacob Bronowski — he was almost there — making two-way linkages between Heisenberg, Gödel, and the 2nd law, but he never synthesized all three. I think if Bronowski had seen Boyd’s paper, he would have slapped his forehead and said “ah hah!” By the way, Boyd showed the paper to the physicist Freeman Dyson (the three of us were in my office) and Boyd asked Dyson if he saw anything wrong in the argument. Dyson said he did not see any problems with the argument and from what I could tell, seemed to like the paper.

One final point: I do not recall Boyd saying anything about Joseph Campbell’s work or that it influenced his thinking — but that does not mean it did not.

Jacob Bronowski doesn’t appear in the sources for “Destruction and Creation.” There are two listings in the sources for Patterns, for The Identity of Man (1971) and A Sense of the Future (1977). I know that he was also a fan of The Ascent of Man (1973)Those three, plus two copies of The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, are included in his collection at Quantico.  All heavily annotated. 

This Boyd Stuff Works!

Starting in around 2000, Dean Lenane, the CEO of a German-owned auto-systems supplier, CRH of North America, began applying Boyd’s concepts. The results were spectacular. As he told me once,

I asked my staff to read 4 books: Certain to Win, Boyd by Robert Coram, Maneuver Warfare Handbook by Bill Lind and Warfighting by the USMC. Although my people were sometimes puzzled by this curriculum, I was able to get most of what we were trying to get across stuffed into the assembled noggins.

Between 2000 and 2010, CRH North America went from no presence whatsoever to the largest supplier in its market sector in the NAFTA region. If anyone thinks this is easy, then I suggest they try it.

A couple of years ago, Dean began writing the story of how he did it. You can download the result, The Turnaround, from our Articles page. Last year, he put the essence of his experience in to a briefing slide show that I first saw out in San Diego in February and which he polished and gave at the 2014 Boyd and Beyond Conference back in October. With his kind permission, I’ve also uploaded the October edition to our Articles page.

New version of “Evolutionary Epistemology”

Chuck Spinney has posted a new version, 2.4, of Evolutionary Epistemology, his explanation in briefing slide format of Boyd’s “Destruction and Creation.”  The biggest change is a new page 4. You can download this version from our Articles page.

Robert Coram captured the problems most of us have when trying to understand what Boyd was driving at in D&C:

Because Boyd spent more than four years researching and writing and then distilling his work down to eleven pages, the result has a specific gravity approaching that of uranium.  It is thick and heavy and ponderous, filled with caveats and qualifiers and arcane references that span theories never before connected. To read “Destruction and Creation” is to fully appreciate the term “heavy sledding.” (Boyd, p. 323)

Yet, as Chuck illustrates, everything Boyd wrote in the remaining 20 years of his life — from Patterns of Conflict to The Essence of Winning and Losing — reinforce the main points of D&C. It is the only thing Boyd produced that he never revised.

Evolutionary Epistemology is more than an explanation, however. It stands as a complement to Boyd’s paper, and, by looking at his concepts from other angles, makes the original more approachable. It takes its place alongside Patterns, Strategic Game, Conceptual Spiral, and the rest of the Discourse as another illustration of message of “Destruction and Creation.”

[Note: the link to “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” on page 43 has been broken. Please download the latest version from our Articles page.]