Fingerspitzengefuhl: How long does it take?

Although Fingerspitzengefühl is one of the core concepts of Boyd’s organizational climate, the others being Einheit, Schwerpunkt, Auftragstaktik, and Behendigkeit (as I’m sure you’re aware …) Boyd only uses the term once in the Discourse on Winning and Losing;

We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.

if we can do this

We will be able to surface new repertoires and (hopefully) develop a Fingerspitzengefühl for folding our adversaries back inside themselves, morally-mentally-physically—so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s happening—without suffering the same fate ourselves. Strategic Game, 45

[When I’m discussing this, I omit the “a” before Fingerspitzengefühl because I think it reads better. Some day in the future, wars will be fought over this point, complete with burnings at the stake. So choose your side carefully.]

The term is associated with Rommel, who is said to have had an almost magical ability to “feel” the flow of the battle and thereby to influence it. This idea of an intuitive feel for a situation carried over to Boyd’s work:  Until you have Fingerspitzengefühl for something so that you can do it quickly, smoothly, and intuitively, you don’t have it. Expressions like “Shoot yourself in the foot” spring to mind.

The set of actions for which you do have such potentially effective responses we call your repertoire. Boyd talks about repertoire in his last briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing, where he notes that we need both

  • an implicit repertoire of psychophysical skills shaped by environments and changes that have been previously experienced, and the ability to
  • evolve new repertoires to deal with unfamiliar phenomena or unforeseen change.

The OODA “loop” sketch, by the way, is a schematic for developing and using Fingerspitzengefühl. This perhaps mysterious statement may become more palatable if you read The Essence of Winning and Losing and my brilliant essay on Conceptual Spiral (both available on the Articles page). TEOWL is only four pages — give it a go.

How do we develop Fingerspitzengefühl? That’s something of a mystery, and Boyd isn’t a lot of help. Obviously it involves practice, but since the idea behind Fingerspitzengefühl is to deal with “unfamiliar phenomena or unforeseen change,” somehow those have to enter into the equation. And perhaps most important of all, we have to do whatever it is we’re doing as members of a team or other type of organization.

The only advice Boyd gives concerns teams:

Message

Expose individuals, with different skills and abilities, against a variety of situations—whereby each individual can observe and orient himself simultaneously to the others and to the variety of changing situations.

? Why ?

In such an environment, a harmony, or focus and direction, in operations is created by the bonds of implicit communications and trust that evolve as a consequence of the similar mental images or impressions each individual creates and commits to memory by repeatedly sharing the same variety of experiences in the same ways.

Beneficial payoff

A command and control system, whose secret lies in what’s unstated or not communicated to one another (in an explicit sense)—in order to exploit lower-level initiative yet realize higher-level intent, thereby diminish friction and compress time, hence gain both quickness and security. Organic Design 18

I’m not a huge fan of “practice makes perfect.” So I’m happy to finally see some research to support what I had thought was innate laziness: “Practice Not As Important As Believed For Success,” by Douglas Main in Popular Science. He quotes a new paper published in the journal Intelligence that concludes:

Deliberate practice does not explain all, nearly all, or even most of the variance in performance in chess and music, the two most widely studied domains in expertise research. Put another way, deliberate practice explains a considerable amount of the variance in performance in these domains, but leaves a much larger amount of the variance unexplained.

Read the article and see what you think. Note that chess always has the element of uncertainty, in the person of the opponent, while that factor is largely missing from music. As far as I can tell, the study only considers individual, not group, performance.

Can groups have Fingerspitzengefühl? Not really. Boyd used the word Einheit to describe an organization that seemed to be functioning as a unified organism with Fingerspitzengefühl. The quote above suggests that it’s best to view Fingerspitzengefühl and Einheit as different aspects of the same underlying phenomenon and develop both at the same time. This is difficult to do, but unless a person can work harmoniously with others in the organization to accomplish the purposes of the organization, Fingerspitzengefühl is just showing off.

21 thoughts on “Fingerspitzengefuhl: How long does it take?

  1. In briefings, Boyd would use it frequently … including with respect to aerial dogfights (individual, but then training others) as well as battle commander/leader (over in some of the Boyd discussion groups drawing similarities with Clauswitz’s “coup d’oeil”)

    • Thanks much. That agrees with what I remember, too.

      He would often use those five German words in his briefings and telcons, but as I recall, the only one of them that he used in the Discourse, other than that one sighting of Fingerspitzengefühl, was Schwerpunkt. He didn’t speak German but it wasn’t hard to find fluent German speakers at the Pentagon who could coach him.

      [Before you all out there fire up your righteous indignation, “blitzkrieg” is an English word, or maybe, according to Hitler, an Italian one.]

  2. “Expose individuals, with different skills and abilities, against a variety of situations—whereby each individual can observe and orient himself simultaneously to the others and to the variety of changing situations.”

    This is why I advocate evolutionary gaming in “A Framework and Metrics for Addressing an Agile Enterprise”, because you develop a sense of what actions or activities are indicators of the thoughts and intentions of the enemy. If I only see a enemy perform an action once before he kills me, I never get to associate the action with the result, but repetitive practice loads the ‘historical information’ portion of my O-O-D-A loop and I can react in advance. (this is why masters have a ‘feel’ for their game.) Gaming allows you to develop responses and strategies through data gathering without paying the ultimate cost of getting it wrong.

  3. Very cool. Chet, you would be proud of me. I am now promoting EBFAS on Facebook and Twitter and trying to get the concepts out there to my readership. My readership are a mix of military and contractor, and every age group. I even have non-military/contractor types perusing, and I am doing my best to promote what good leadership is and what organizations need in order to win in business or war.

    Your posts dealing with all the ingredients of EBFAS are awesome and I really do appreciate what you are doing here. Very inspiring and Boyd would be pleased.

    One thing I stumbled upon after reading this post, which you might find interesting is the concept of Flow Triggers. Steven Kotler is the author of the concept and his book is called “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance”. What was interesting to me is how much of EBFAS coincides with Kotler’s studies on human and group performance. I thought you would like it and here is a link to a slide he put together to introduce the concept.

    http://www.slideshare.net/StevenKotler/17-flow-triggers

  4. Hi Chet,

    Do you think this would explain the emergence of Ace pilots?

    In any air war, the top 5% of air pilots cause a huge proportion (often more than 50%) of all the casualties to the enemy. The top 1% probably punch above the the typical pilot at the 95% percentile by a huge amount too.

    Hmm … the practice does not make perfect rule in turn questions the air training. Generally, more flight hours per month of good quality training is considered better and leads to better pilots. Do some pilots somehow have the ability to bypass this and become exceptional relatively rapidly?

    On that note, what makes a person get Fingerspitzengefühl in anything? Is it being observant? Being an original thinker with a new way to do things? Or some other trait?

    Chris

    • Chris,

      Interesting points. I think all the things you mentioned are imortant.

      A lot of people have looked into this. Boyd mentions the German approach on Patterns, chart 74:

      Furthermore, a la General Blumentritt, it presupposes “an officers training institution which allows the subordinate a very great measure of freedom of action and freedom in the manner of executing orders and which primarily calls for independent daring, initiative and sense of responsibility.”

      Don Vandergriff has done a lot of work trying to get this approach into the Army’s training system. His book, Raising the Bar, is available on Amazon.

      The Israeli Air Force, at least on the fighter side, carries this approach to perfection — every mission is tactical from the moment their wheels lift off. They recognize that a hundred hours of boring holes in the sky does not make one an ace, and will actually hurt their combat readiness (a complaint echoed by USAF pilots who had to circle US cities after 9/11).

      So I’m not claiming that practice is irrelevant, or even that more isn’t better if it includes the elements you’re going to encounter in real conflict: rapid, unpredictable change, ambiguity, surprise, breakdown in cohesion, and so on.

      Maybe a better way to phrase it would be “Practice, per se, doesn’t make perfect.”

      Chet

      • Hi Chet,

        So practice is sometimes important. I suppose the nature of the practice is important too. Realistic training versus flying in the sky. I suppose there are reasons the Israeli air force is so highly regarded. It will depend then on the quality of the training and simulation.

        There’s another issue though that still remains: what makes the 5% of top people? That remains unsolved. Perhaps with that solved, it would mean solving the issue of air combat … and a whole lot of other things.

        Earlier you noted that groups don’t have that sort of Fingerspitzengefühl. Hmm … it’s interesting. As an introvert, I have always resented group work.

        Perhaps this article is worth a read relating to introverts:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        Also take the time to read some of the “reader’s picks” in the comments section. Although I do feel that the New York Times is very pro-establishment, I am forced to acknowledge that it is one of the few places where intelligent comments are made regularly.

        Chris

      • Hi Chris,

        So practice is sometimes important.

        Nobody ever said that it wasn’t, just that it isn’t the only or perhaps even the most important thing. Practice perfects what you practice, which may not be what you need when you have to do what it is you do. For example, do you practice being nervous, anxious, frightened, terrified?

        As for the 5%, maybe they’re outliers, they catch on faster. The real mystery is the .01%, the savants, folks like Mozart who could compose at 3 and write down from memory any piece he had ever heard.

        Groups don’t have Fingerspitzengefühl because it’s a property of individuals.

        Thanks for the NTY link, and I agree with you on intelligent comments. My only problem with the Times is that it’s hideously expensive. It’s worth stressing that Einheit and groupthink are completely different concepts. Einheit involves harmonizing a broad range of personalities and ideas (the broader the better!) in order to accomplish the mission.

        Chet

    • There was discussion in IBM about 20% of a group tended to be responsible for 80% of the productivity (80/20 rule, in extreme cases it could be 95/5). The issue was that group managers could double the productivity of their people by things like anticipating obstacles and removing them. The problem was most managers tended to spend nearly all their time trying to help the least productivity members of the group … while the interest of the group would be better served if they spent all their time improving the productivity of the most productive members of the group.

      • lhw0,

        Good point. I used to wonder why they didn’t just fire the other 80% (or 95%). One answer is that it isn’t always the same 20% on every problem. Another is that vice presidents have nephews. But I think a better one, and more in line with Boyd’s philosophy, is Musashi’s carpenter analogy from the Earth book:

        The master carpenter should take into account the abilities and limitations of his men. By knowing who is capable of which tasks, by encouraging them and correcting when necessary, and by developing their skills, the master can accomplish tasks quickly and well. The same is true of strategy.

      • Then they aren’t superstars, just prima donnas.

        Any work that needs to be done is as valuable as any other, and it should be done with as much mindfulness and to as high a standard.

        Any activity that doesn’t need to be done shouldn’t.

  5. ” Note that chess always has the element of uncertainty, in the person of the opponent, while that factor is largely missing from music.”

    If I understand chess at all, the element of uncertainty lasts only until the opponent makes the first move. Which (I have always assumed) is why my brother-in-law always liked to play chess with me.

    As the opponent, my move was never based on any strategy, In other words,no my orientation in the move didn’t come from any forward based move from previous history. As such, my opponent could base a win on any known historical account. On the other hand, I did win a few games, and these wins took him by surprise.

    • Larry,

      If I understand chess at all, the element of uncertainty lasts only until the opponent makes the first move.

      I don’t know. My uncertainty seemed to peak about 2 moves before my opponents yelled “Mate!!!” (Rhymes with “Goooooooool!!!)

      Chet

  6. Hi Chet,

    Some thoughts about earlier:

    “For example, do you practice being nervous, anxious, frightened, terrified?”

    There are people who do try to control their emotions, particularly in times of stress. I think that there are people who do a better job of handling difficult times than others.

    But you are right. It’s not something we have a “choice” in really practicing is it?

    “As for the 5%, maybe they’re outliers, they catch on faster. The real mystery is the .01%, the savants, folks like Mozart who could compose at 3 and write down from memory any piece he had ever heard.”

    Hmm … I suppose the equal to them would be the “super pilots” like Hans Rudel. Or maybe even Boyd could be considered those 0.01% when it comes to ideas.

    Ok, perhaps the best way to answer this question, since at one point you knew Boyd would be: What made him in that 0.01%? What made him different from other people?

    “Thanks for the NTY link, and I agree with you on intelligent comments. My only problem with the Times is that it’s hideously expensive.”

    I personally do not subscribe. It is a very pro-establishment place, and at times, has not covered what truly needed to be covered at times.

    “It’s worth stressing that Einheit and groupthink are completely different concepts. Einheit involves harmonizing a broad range of personalities and ideas (the broader the better!) in order to accomplish the mission.”

    Indeed so. Groupthink is hostile to the idea of competing ideas. Einheit welcomes it, if not relies on it.

    “Any work that needs to be done is as valuable as any other, and it should be done with as much mindfulness and to as high a standard.

    Any activity that doesn’t need to be done shouldn’t.”

    Indeed so. The hard part is recognizing what needs to be done.

    – Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      “Any work that needs to be done is as valuable as any other, and it should be done with as much mindfulness and to as high a standard.

      Any activity that doesn’t need to be done shouldn’t.”

      Indeed so. The hard part is recognizing what needs to be done.

      Absolutely. That’s why lean has all those categories of waste. Plus, it depends on your orientation, your mental model for accomplishing your objective. What’s essential under one may be waste under another, e.g., elaborate command and control systems are essential under attrition warfare, and work-in-process inventory is needed to make a conventional manufacturing facility work.

      And getting your “superstars” to help out with what’s traditionally been viewed as grunt work can be a leadership challenge.

    • It’s worth pointing out that the NYT does let you read 10 articles / calendar month for free. After whatever initial deal you pick expires, the cheapest subscription to the entire paper is $195/year. Back when I was teaching, I could get it at half price, which wasn’t bad.

  7. Chet,

    Do you think that Gary Klein’s work speaks to the development of Fingerspitzengefühl?

    It almost seems like the term refers to a combination of unconscious competency of core skills + advanced situational awareness + trained intuition, and that each of these three parts helps to make the others possible. You can’t have good SA if too much of your attention is focused on implementing core skills. You can’t train your intuition to recognize emerging patterns, if you don’t have good SA to begin with. And so on.

    The other thing that Fingerspitzengefühl brings to mind is the mystery of chicken sexers. From what I am told, the mystery is this: there is no formal training or methodology to determining the sex of baby chicks. But individuals can do it. And the only way to learn is to sit and watch one for about a month until you too can do it. More strangely, neither of you will be able to explain how you’re doing what you’re doing. The skill is totally non analyzable and non-verbal.

    In the Japanese martial arts they incorporate a sense of this through the idea of a Uchi-deshi, which is a live-in student. The advantage of being a Uchi-deshi is not that you get more training, but that you get “chicken sexing” sort of exposure to the master.

    Sorry for the rambling nature of this comment, just sort of trying to get a better grasp of the term. Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Jeff,

      Thanks.

      Do you think that Gary Klein’s work speaks to the development of Fingerspitzengefühl?

      As I understand Klein, his concept of “recognition-primed decisionmaking” is a model of how actions are selected. It seems to me to be well compatible with Boyd’s work.

      Your other examples are interesting. Boyd didn’t go into any great detail on how you develop Fingerspitzengefühl. In Conceptual Spiral, he suggests a process of hypothesis / test, where you try things out and learn from the results. Over time, you program not only your neuromuscular system but your orientation. I think this also fits with your examples.

      Chet

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s