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One of 3x original graphics created by author for this series- this one is explained in Part 5
20 April 2023

Converging and Diverging Iteratively: An Inquiry into Why Militaries are Terrible at Innovation (Part 4 of 5)

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Original post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/converging-and-diverging-iteratively-an-inquiry-into-why-militaries-are-terrible-at-innovation-3ba975f1b897

This unintended shift from sensemaking and reflective practice to that of a concrete, action-oriented mode of reverse-engineered planning is done to enhance coordination and uniformity by the organization desiring convergence. “People who are preoccupied with coordination tend to be guided by the name of the original experience rather than the qualities that were observed and felt at the time of imagining, forming and shaping. If significant details occur that lie outside the reach of these names, then coordinated people will be the last to see them and the first to be affected by them unless poets [reflective practitioners, innovators, improvisationalists] intervene.[1] Thus, while the institutional preference orders innovative activities moving from the abstract to the concrete, the opposite is actually in play. ‘Concrete’ thinking that occurs immediately in the fantastic and flux will styme any subsequent reflective thinking, detour experimentation and improvisation so that deliberate action is orchestrated entirely in fixed names and categories that are part of the legacy frame (institutionalized, convergent thinking) such as in military doctrine and ordained managerial decision-making methodologies (the Joint Planning Process, the Military Decision-Making Methodology).

Innovation unfolds not in a manner that supports the existing institutional belief systems and legacy war paradigm, but so that it is disrupted, deconstructed, and reconfigured in previously unimagined or unrealized forms and functions. Thus, the movement from the fantastic and flux becomes an iterative journey to explore and then shatter the previously concrete. Terminology already fixed to ideas and patterns are re-examined, linkages broken, and new formations prototyped in a fluid, temporary, and even playful manner of exploring beyond prior legacy limitations. Thus, the operator innovates by moving from the concrete into abstraction while flowing through Figure 1 in iterations of hunch and flux, taking anything concrete and fixed in the legacy system framing by the institution (doctrine, theory, models, methods, along with the ontological and epistemological underpinnings therein) so that as experimentation and prototyping progresses, one moves into greater abstraction as the innovator moves toward decision and deliberate action. Below, Figure 2 illustrates one way to show the iterative process of cycling from the legacy system and assumed concreteness to abstractions that move hunches from the flux and back into the fantastic to improvise, experiment, and create.

Figure 2 for this part of the series

Figure 2 (above) simplifies what is difficult to depict in a linear mapping, as the cognitive unfolding of innovative activities itself cannot ever be mapped in any ideal form. It differs for every operator and in every context. Figure 2 does highlight the nuanced distinction between disrupting, deconstructing, and reflecting upon one’s institutional paradigm and the legacy frame (how we collectively agree upon reality, the past, and a normative future) through a convergent and divergent iterative process. Innovators moving from flux to hunch are ideally master practitioners with deep, tacit understanding of their craft.

Just as improvisation draws from one’s historical knowledge, wisdom, and deep experience that is mapped within the institutional legacy frame, it must move iteratively through convergent and divergent paths. These are intertwined, but broadly an experimentation or improvisation that blends institutionally known and valued constructs with novelty has a convergent aspect to the hunch or prototyping, while a refined ideation that challenges or disrupts the legacy frame in a divergent path will provide novel abstraction beyond those institutionally managed limits. Figure 2 is insufficient and likely an oversimplification in that there likely is no clear distinction between convergent and divergent iterations of moving from flux to hunch, but it is depicted as such for readers that are unfamiliar with these concepts. Tacitly, much of this flows in an unmappable, emergent, dynamic process that changes each time an operator attempts to improvise or create.

Deliberate action, therefore, should not be interpreted exclusively in a single paradigmatic mode where the legacy frame imposes some paradigmatic convergence. Instead, operators move in iterations of flux and hunch, improvising and cycling back convergently and divergently so that deliberate action is reconceptualized. Action may be considered systematically, in the western classical configuration of ‘ends-ways-means’ and a reverse-engineered causal mapping from a preconceived future state to that of the present, or also in alternative ways of understanding activity that require alternative war paradigms to access. This disruption of legacy rigidness opens the innovative process up so that different ways of conceptualizing complex reality are appreciated in this unfolding creative process. It also changes what we mean by “deliberate action” in that those words no longer correspond exclusively with one institutional dictionary. This artistry and creative flow opens up new pathways to realize emergent frames as illustrated in Figure 2 (above) where such abstraction is otherwise unavailable for those imposing the illusion of moving from the abstract to the concrete. Indeed, the creative flow moves in opposition, from the previously concrete (if illusionary) to the novel expanse of abstraction and potentiality.

Returning to Figure 1 (below) so that the entire innovation process is completed, operators then move from refined ideation into a decision that is paired with deliberate action. Action is frequently only interpreted using a western, technological, and scientific framework that rests upon ancient Greek natural philosophy where preconceived goals in the ideal are forced into a future real world via the deliberate, heroic action of the operator. Deliberate action also should take a multi-paradigmatic perspective (check out other design articles by Ben Zweibelson for more on this concept).

Figure 1 from this series (found in Part 3)

In eastern thinking, the notion of “action through non-action” is where systemic logic considers the potentiality of unfolding systems, the interdependency of paradoxical yet intersectional, complex relationships, and how one might perform actions “up-stream” when there is little or no system resistance so that later on, there is no action necessary as the down-stream flow will cause future systemic change to flow along the new path designed by the non-acting strategist.[2] Whether considering from a western, eastern, or more desirable “multi-paradigmatic” perspective, the reflective practitioner moves to enact a purposeful implementation of creative thought into deliberate action. Chia, in explaining how social paradigms erect institutional barriers to prevent practitioners from progressing in ways outside the ordered, legacy frame, is otherwise doomed to repeat past mistakes and be incapable of any consequential acts of innovation:

As a generic system of thought, [a social paradigm] often appears so self-evident and so seemingly necessary, that for most people, most of the time, are blissfully unaware that they are captivated by it… [Achieving] paradigmatic awareness implies appreciating and accepting the partiality of explanations proffered and countenancing the, sometimes disturbing, possibility of the existence of a multiplicity of incompatible but plausible ways of observing and understanding phenomena… It is to accept that true progress can only be attained by theoretical ventures that are able to “urge observation beyond the boundaries of its delusive completeness, and to urge the doctrines of science beyond their delusive air of finality”. Thus, a civilization that “cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited period of progress.”[3]

System propensity in a complex, dynamic world means that the only constant in life is change, and Chia’s above commentary on the need for progress is part of an ongoing struggle between the complex reality unfolding around human beings, and the socially constructed second order of reality maintained collectively in their minds[4] Complex systems are perpetually in an emergent, illusive, and dynamic state of change toward some unpredictable state of propensity. Humans may utilize one paradigm or another to make sense of this fluid, ever-changing reality, and arguably in certain contexts of war, the victors ended up using a more effective social paradigm than the opponent. Equally feasible is the opposite, where one group might simply have superior resources, technology, and time yet is miraculously able to drag itself to the victory circle using the inferior war paradigm and blunt force. Either way, operators that conceptualize opportunities and decide to enact activities will then experience the real-world consequences of these efforts.

When operators decide to act, these actions have consequences. All consequences impose some order of emergence, with some activities merely becoming inconsequential ripples on the water that cancel out quickly and without much notice, while other consequences influence significant systemic transformation. As complex systems are sensitive to initial conditions,[5] the metaphor that a hurricane might be formed by one butterfly’s wings is a useful way to consider Figure 3 below. All activities impact the future propensity of a complex system, and by doing any action (or non-action), the operators that rely upon the social construction of a shared paradigm cannot avoid their activities not shifting that legacy frame into some new configuration.[6] Changes might be imperceivable, or they may take on seemingly chaotic or catastrophic orders of magnitude.

Systematic logic, if applied to the emergent transformation of complex systems, might encourage operators to seek to “find the butterfly that caused the hurricane.” This is when one confounds how complex systems are not just nonlinear, but also are not analytically reducible into clear “cause-effect” relationships. There is no single butterfly that causes a hurricane to form months later due to the flapping of wings creating fluctuations in weather that culminate in a massive storm. Instead, there are thousands of butterflies that are part of the overarching system that contributed to the emergence of a hurricane, and while one of them might have been the original wing flapper, it is not possible to mathematically isolate or reverse-engineer a causal pathway to that single insect. Instead, the aggregate of many events creating unique, non-repeatable, and non-reversable activities results in an emergence of a new system configuration that can only happen once and cannot be rewound like an audio tape or movie. Systematic logic and the extension of natural science theories (physics, geology, biology, chemistry) into a scientific framing of war would become championed by theorists such as Jomini, Clausewitz, Scharnhorst, and Fuller throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gharajedaghi would explain this pattern of military ontological formulation where states at war were reduced to individuals engaged in duels, and human components such as bones, cells, and organs were associated with state-level entities and complex warfare:

The biological thinking or living systems paradigm, which lead to the concept of the organization as a uni-minded system, emerged mainly in Germany and Britain, but then caught fire in the United States. The underlying assumptions and principles of the biological mode of organizations are also simple and elegant: an organization is considered a uni-minded living system, just like a human being, with a purpose of its own. This purpose, in view of the inherent vulnerability and unstable structure of open systems, is survival… Although uni-minded systems have a choice, their parts do not. They operate based on cybernetics principles as a homeostatic system… The operation of a uni-minded system is totally under the control of a single brain, the executive function, which, by means of a communication network, receives information from a variety of sensing parts and issues directions that activate relevant parts of the system.[7]

Where we to do this in a massive simulation that could even approach the sensitivity of a complex, dynamic system, each time we reversed back to the start, an entirely unique and dissimilar unfolding would occur. The linear-causal act of the single butterfly is an ideal but does not ever exist in the real. It only exists mathematically as a core part of the theoretical necessity of emergent, complex systems but is simultaneously an impossible-to-isolate component that is a synthesis of the entire propensity of a complex system in transformation. Pursuing reductionism or the epistemological position that “the world can be completely understood and that such understanding can be obtained by analysis” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of complexity by modern militaries. [8] Modern military quests to locate individual butterflies within complex, dynamic conflict settings underpins what is a Newtonian stylization best echoed on battlefield patterns of the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, where prominent war theorists such as J.F.C. Fuller would influence nearly all modern western military management of decision-making through a reductionist, analytical, deductive manner of rationalization:

If we understand the true reason for any single event, then we shall be able to work out the chain of cause and effect and, if we can do this, we shall foresee events and so be in a position to prepare ourselves to meet them… military power is controlled by similar laws to those which govern [physical laws of nature] force, consequently the aim of the soldier is to harmonize his mind to the workings of these laws.[9]

Complexity rejects such attempts, despite modern military fixation on reinterpreting complex systems through linear-causal, mechanistic ways and means. In particular, innovation and change occur not by cautiously extending established ideas of the legacy system incrementally and convergently, but through disruption and destruction of the old in search of the new.[10] Figure 3 presents some of this in an unavoidably clunky oversimplification. Innovators move from deciding to implementing their improvisation, experimentation, or other activity so that there are consequences that begin unfolding in complex reality. The system changes in unpredictable, potentially unimagined ways. As those manifestations unfold and the complex system exercises dynamic transformation, the institution’s legacy frame itself undergoes a drifting effect due to the living users of the social paradigm themselves being pulled in this current toward a yet-to-be unrealized future state. As operators reflect as they practice, they are sensemaking and adapting to how the system transforms in this intertwined journey of innovation.[11] Often, the institution’s legacy frame imposes particular value sets that draw from deeply held belief systems where an experiment might be considered as a good or bad consequence, assuming that the emergent outcome either validates earlier hypotheses, or perhaps generates surprise or uncertainty. Non-reflective practitioners might move exclusively in a convergent iteration as shown in the top arching portion of Figure 3, where subsequent iterations of improvisation and innovation conform to legacy frame conditions where values are used to interpret how consequences might be evaluated.[12] This too can be problematic.

Often, innovation is a messy, irregular, and nonlinear process that unfolds not through multiple linked objectives that are realized and validated, but through many instances of failure and confusion. Failing is an integral part of innovation, yet paradoxically it is a mainstream target for institutional avoidance in modern militaries. “Failure is not an option”, which often permeates the social paradigm of a military organization so that innovation and creativity are marginalized or potentially eliminated so that system stability and an institutionally sanctioned sort of orderliness is maintained.

However, in all examples of innovation, those that set out on their journey to create did not set their destination to be where they ultimately arrive, and most always that journey is beset by necessary conditions of failure, often profound and repetitive. The famous tale of Thomas Edison failing 9,999 times so that he finally could innovate and successfully produce the first working lightbulb on attempt number 10,000 is important to consider here. Without reflective practice, and innovators moving wittingly (or unwittingly) through how Figure 3 (below and explained in the final part in this series) frames the emergent process of creativity, discovery, failure, and reflection, one simply cannot succeed in producing what the organization needs tomorrow but does not yet exist today.

Interested in this graphic? Check out Part 5 publishing soon to close this series out!

[1] Weick, “Reflections: Change Agents As Change Poets- On Reconnecting Flux and Hunches,” 12.

[2] Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy Between Western and Chinese Thinking, 15–28, 148–49, 178–83.

[3] Robert Chia, “Before and Beyond Paradigms in Organisation Studies: Back to the ‘Rough Ground,’” Studi Di Sociologica 1 (2019): 58; Alfred Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1933), 184; Alfred Whitehead, Science and the Modern World(London: Free Association Books, 1926), 73. Chia cites both Whitehead references in the above citation.

[4] Schultz and Hatch, “Living with Multiple Paradigms: The Case of Paradigm Interplay in Organizational Culture Studies”; Haridimos Tsoukas and Mary Jo Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” Human Relations54, no. 8 (August 2001): 979–1013.

[5] Tsoukas, “Introduction: Chaos, Complexity and Organization Theory,” 298–99.

[6] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, First Anchor Books Edition, 1967 (New York: Anchor Books, 1966); Chris Doran, “Jumping Frames: Reflexivity and Recursion in the Sociology of Science,” Social Studies of Science 19, no. 3 (August 1989): 515–31; Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan, Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis: Elements of the Sociology of Corporate Life (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1979).

[7] Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, A Platform for Designing Business Architecture, 11.Gharajedaghi does not specifically address Westphalian nation states or modern war theory in this citation, but more broadly addresses all of western society in its modernization, industrialization, and technological transformation via modern scientific thinking. For examples of military theorists positing natural science metaphors, models, and theories as the primary manner to appreciate war, see: Fuller J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 2012 reprinting by Books Express Publishing (London: Hutchinson & Company, LTD, 1925). Fuller’s treatise in 1925 would subsequently influence nearly all modern military theory and doctrine and remain largely unchanged nearly a century later in modern military thought and practice.

[8] Jamshid Gharajedaghi and Russell Ackoff, “Mechanisms, Organisms, and Social Systems,” in New Thinking in Organizational Behaviour, by Haridimos Tsoukas (Oxford, United Kingdom: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd, 1994), 290.

[9] J.F.C., The Foundations of the Science of War, 94–95.

[10] Sylvain Bureau, “Entrepreneurship as a Subversive Activity: How Can Entrepreneurs Destroy in the Process of Creative Destruction?,” M@n@gement 16, no. 3 (2013): 204–37; Mireille Coral, Jeff Noonan, and Paul Chislett, “Destructive Creation,” Alternate Routes 27 (2016): 313–25; John Stanczak, Peyton Talbott, and Ben Zweibelson, “Designing at the Cutting Edge of Battle: The 75th Ranger Regiment’s Project Galahad,” Special Operations Journal, 2021, 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1080/23296151.2021.1905224.

[11] Weick, “Reflections: Change Agents As Change Poets- On Reconnecting Flux and Hunches”; Weick, “The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge”; Karl Weick, “Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies,” Administrative Science Quarterly 41 (1996): 301–13.

[12] Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action; Visser, “Schön: Design as a Reflective Practice”; Robert Chia, “Reflections: In Praise of Silent Transformation- Allowing Change Through ‘Letting Happen,’” Journal of Change Management 14, no. 1 (2013): 8–27; Ferry and Ross-Gordon, “An Inquiry into Schön’s Epistemology of Practice: Exploring Links between Experience and Reflective Practice.”

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