Tempo — A Review

[Note:  An earlier and slightly different version of this review was originally posted at http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com]

Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making

by Venkatesh Rao
(Ribbonfarm, 2011; 154 pages)

Reviewed by Chet Richards
July 25, 2011

A good book is read more than once while accumulating copious notes in its margins and on the blank pages that the publisher has thoughtfully provided before and after the text. Venkatesh Rao has written a good book.

Good books do not confirm the reader’s long-cherished beliefs. Such books are worse than useless because they lock mindsets into place, making the agility one needs to cope with an unpredictable world even harder to achieve. The late American strategist, John Boyd, considered such agility — the ability to come up with new tactics, ideas, and weapons and employ them effectively while under fire — the cornerstone of his strategy.

Rao draws on Boyd in several places, as well on sources ranging from the topical, such as Gladwell and Taleb, to the foundational (e.g., Camus and Clausewitz), to the downright obscure — know anything about The Archeology of Garbage? Do the words wabi and sabi ring a bell?

The result is a synthesis, what Boyd called a “snowmobile,” that combines concepts from across a variety of disciplines to produce a cornucopia of new ideas, insights and speculations. You may be confused, challenged, outraged, and puzzled (some of the language can be academic), but you’ll rarely be bored because every chapter, often every page, has something you can add to the parts bin for building your own snowmobiles.

Let me highlight just a couple, of special interest to folks familiar with Boyd’s concepts. Near the end of the book, Rao introduces an expanded version of “legibility”:

A piece of physical reality is legible if it is obviously the product of coherent human agency, a deliberate externalization of a mental model. When human and natural sources of order are harder to tease apart, you get greater illegibility (p. 133 — and I warned you about the academic language).

Then a couple of paragraphs later, he claims that:

Used with adversarial intentions, Boyd’s OODA can be understood as a deliberate use of illegibility to cause failure.

At first, this seems silly. Boyd only considers conflict between groups of human beings (Patterns of Conflict, 10), so all uses of his strategic concepts would seem to be prima facia examples of legible phenomena. On the other hand, and this is an example of what makes Rao’s little book so valuable, some commentators, such as Stalk and Hout in 1990’s Competing Against Time, point out that victims of a Boyd-style attack can rarely identify the cause of their problems — often blaming bad luck or incompetent, self-serving and treacherous idiots in their own organizations. Boyd made this clear in his own work, such as in Patterns of Conflict, 132, when he suggested that his victims would exhibit a variety of traumatic symptoms including confusion, disorder, panic, chaos, paralysis and collapse — indicating unrelenting attack by forces outside the scope of their own mental models.

Rao characterizes Boyd’s OODA loop (actually, the concept of operating inside the OODA loop) as

the core of a deeply creative and philosophically elegant enactment style that is based on many of the same themes inspiring this book: tempo, entropy, and creative destruction. (118)

Coming from someone who had not read the Boyd source materials when he wrote the book, this is an amazingly perceptive comment, for these run through Boyd’s work like Norns weaving the fates of men. Perhaps his unfamiliarity with the original briefings, however, led him to make one characterization that is incorrect, although widely believed:

The central idea in OODA is a generalization of Butterfly-Bee: to simply operate at a higher tempo than your opponent. (118)

Boyd does appear to make this claim, specifically on page 44 of his briefing Strategic Game of ? and ?

The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep up with what’s going on. He will become disoriented or confused [leading to his collapse].

The title of this chart, however, is “Illuminating Example.” In the beginning of Patterns of Conflict, his magnum opus that pre-dates Strategic Game by about a year, Boyd claims that

[The] idea of fast transients suggests that in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries—or, better yet, get inside our adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop. (5, emphasis added)

For the purpose of collapsing adversaries, Boyd’s strategy is about operating inside OODA loops, where the ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm is one specific practice (although, as the example above shows, one that can be quite useful at times.)

There are so many ideas in this book that I’m going to quit here and leave the rest of them to you.

As for where to go from here, Rao might write more about tempo. This will seem strange to him, I’m sure, but pages go by with hardly a mention of the concept. This means that we need another book from him. I’d suggest expanding on some of the concepts that he raises but doesn’t find space to develop. Here are three ideas:

  • The influence of tempo on the morale and cohesion of opposing groups. Boyd, as noted above, made this part of his strategic framework, as did the Japanese. Musashi, writing in 1645, for example, claimed that a samurai could use an advantageous rhythm to arrest the motivation of an opponent, no matter how powerful that motivation was. Rao offers us glimmers on p. 31, when he mentions disruption, and on p. 144 addressing shared mental models (a pillar of Boyd’s favored organizational climate), but he can mine this lode much more deeply.
  • Musashi was drawing on Japan’s Zen tradition. Rao mentions two elements of the Zen aesthetic, wabi and sabi, (p. 146) and he might continue developing this theme. Zen, the Sun Tzu text, and later Japanese concepts of strategy, as outlined in one of Boyd’s favorite books, Cleary’s The Japanese Art of War, share a close relationship.
  • Finally, I’d like to see more from Rao on strategy itself. He defines a strategy as a “cheap trick,” the recognition of an “exploitable pattern” in unfolding events (pp. 76, 120). But this is incomplete: Will any “cheap trick” do? Do we stop at just one, as Rao’s pattern, the “double Freyberg triangle,” would suggest (p. 74)? And doesn’t that pattern make us predictable? For all this, though, Rao’s definition is tantalizing close to Boyd’s. If you consider a cheap trick to be an intention — because we don’t know if our attempt to exploit the pattern will work — then his concept is reminiscent of Boyd’s definition of strategy, which begins with “a mental tapestry of changing intentions … “

So many ideas on every page. Buy this little book, study it, sometimes nod in agreement, and sometimes throw it across the room.

Visit the Tempo blog at http://tempobook.com and Rao’s personal blog at http://www.ribbonfarm.com

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