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.

In yoga, we use this simple experiment to show students that our bodies are different, and what is easy for some people is going to be difficult if not impossible for others. So we relax and work with what we have. (I’m indebted to yoga guru Paul Grilley for this example.)

It turns out that this same principle applies to building Fingerspitzengefühl, the intuitive competence that Boyd included as one of his five elements of culture. As reported in Slate, a recent study concluded that:

Deliberate practice left more of the variation in skill unexplained than it explained. For example, deliberate practice explained 26 percent of the variation for games such as chess, 21 percent for music, and 18 percent for sports. So, deliberate practice did not explain all, nearly all, or even most of the performance variation in these fields. In concrete terms, what this evidence means is that racking up a lot of deliberate practice is no guarantee that you’ll become an expert.

The brain is part of our physiology, so it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that there are also individual differences there. Read the article for their conclusions on the other factors that explain differences in skill.

All this raises an interesting question, though: Why is Fingerspitzengefühl important? In particular, is more always better? Most of us would be willing to grant that “racking up a lot of deliberate practice” will generate improvement, even if it doesn’t turn us into Usain Bolt or Rory McIlroy. But given that there are only 24 hours in a day, is that the best way for us to spend our time?

Let me rephrase the question:

As a leader, should you be focused on improving the Fingerspitzengefühl of the members of your organization?

Put another way: Is the capability of the organization equal to the sum of the capabilities of its members? Boyd never said that it was. I, on the other hand, will argue that it is, but you have to be careful how you define “individual capabilities.”

When creating a team of any type, the most important idea is to create Einheit, another of Boyd’s cultural attributes. Einheit is difficult to define explicitly, but the way Boyd used it, it has the connotations of mutual trust, cohesion, esprit, and sense of unity. It also implies that everybody knows everybody else’s capabilities. As Boyd put it on chart 18 of Organic Design:

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.

Boyd never denigrates the importance of individual skill — Fingerspitzengefühl is the bedrock of his culture, after all — but such skill only matters if it improves the performance of the whole team. So that’s where he puts his focus. Part of this “individual skill” is knowing how to build Einheit. For the leader, this is the most critical skill of them all, but as Boyd noted, it is important for each individual. In other words, it’s not just or maybe even most critically our individual technical skills but also our interpersonal skills that, considered all together, determine how effective we are as a group.

[As an aside, if you are the leader / commander of an organization that has come apart — lost a critical battle or contract, for example — then starting the rebuilding process with an emphasis on individual technical Fingerspitzengefühl can be very effective.]

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2 thoughts on “Whence Fingerspitzengefuehl?

  1. I recently finished Creveld’s Wargames … i would have enjoyed it more if there had been more analysis. Boyd would talk about having audited/reviewed several large scale wargames … he would characterize as the generals & admirals played golf all year while their staff practices … and then when it came to the actual events … the generals & admirals had no “finger feel” for the information flow in the warrooms … complaints about being totally overwhelmed by information overload … as opposed to not bothering to understand what was happening. This was about the time that PCs were becoming increasingly pervasive … and we would make observations that while PCs were more complex than operating a car (and cost about the same) … they were complaining about not being able to instantly use one.

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