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17 February 2023

Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) 11: ‘On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning’ by Russell Ackoff – and Why Militaries Should Read This

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Original post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/recommended-innovation-articles-and-commentary-11-on-the-use-of-models-in-corporate-planning-b620b8b57437

When the military thinks “problem”, what is the very next word associated? 100% of the time, it is “solution.” We correlate a “problem-solution” formulaic arrangement through our particular doctrinal, linear-causal, systematic manner of pairing a managerial decision-making methodology (called JPP, MDMP, MCPP, and a host of cloned equivalents) with a mechanistic, Taylorism inspired and Newtonian styled frames (paradigms) for interpreting reality. But is there more than “Imagine goal, find problem preventing said goal (ends), identify solution, direct ways and means to solve problem, achieve predetermined goal, rinse, repeat?”

Okay, I just tossed out a bunch of concepts that either cause readers to say “what the hell is that”, or for some, a fierce crossing of the arms and a “harumph, that is not true! Military doctrine is the best. Have you read the new FM 3–0?” If you are still reading, rest assured, I can provide links and sources to these important concepts. But let’s get to Ackoff and this nice, short article that is pound-for-pound, one of the most powerful articles I use in design education. Ackoff delivers in a mere 8 pages some mind-blowing content, all conveyed in non-academically dense sentences. This article should be read by everyone involved in military education, particularly at the cadet and basic levels in my opinion- as this would help confront the complete dominance of our ancient Greek logic that posits “individual plus designed action leads to planned result”, or “it is better to do anything rather than nothing”- the basis for our legends and lore of heroic action, our basis for leadership, and our basis for “ends-ways-means is the best framework for appreciating complex reality and simplifying it so we can observe, orient, decide, and act faster and better than a rival”- hence the Boydian priests that overlap with the High Priests of von Clausewitz (they share common ground in ancient Greek logics).

Linked below is a wonderful (15 minute read) Complexity Theorist Russell Ackoff article on different ways humans realize ‘problem’ in different systems. There is ‘solution’, but also ‘resolution’, ‘absolution’, and the most important one for complex security challenges- ‘problem dissolution.’ None of these terms exist in military doctrine except ‘solution’. Now, the link is behind a library paywall at JSTOR, so if you are military or a student, you just need to contact your librarian and they can get you a PDF immediately. Others will need to “phone a friend” or pay the $$$ to access it. However you get this article, I promise you the 8 pages here are worth every penny.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/2486198

So, how might we unpack some concepts that Ackoff uses?

Big take-away: complexity and systems theory did not exist when militaries generated all of their war theories (Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett, Douhet, Mitchell, Liddell Hart) and decision-making methods. The exception is for Boyd, who did draw extensively from the earlier General Systems Theory and original (objective) complexity theory done in the style of the Santa Fe Institute (which differs from later complexity theory found in the works of Schultz, Hatch, Tsoukas, Gharajedaghi, Dooley and many more). Many Boydian fanatics extend his OODA theories and slide presentations to include later complexity theories that did not exist in his time… this is not Boyd’s fault. It is often a lack of deep understanding of complexity theory beyond what our military doctrine oversimplifies it to become (so that we retain our core Newtonian war beliefs with a sprinkling of complexity terms). On Newtonian styles, see this 5 part series that will be a chapter in my current book project:

https://benzweibelson.medium.com/reconceptualizing-military-campaign-design-and-strategy-with-complexity-theory-systemic-design-and-878135aa993a

Most all of our modern military frames for decision-making, strategy, and operations stems from this early Newtonian Style that Jomini, Clausewitz, and multiple others in the 19th and 20th century would extend the concepts further with, or military leaders would devise elaborate strategies or plans to demonstrate that sometimes, with luck and plenty of resources, these concepts appear to work. Sort of.

Through the 20th and into the 21st century, we have failed to do anything but continue an extension of a Newtonian “problem solution” dynamic on all challenges.despite complexity theory and modern design deeming this inappropriate and usually impossible. Horst Rittel, the most significant design theorist of the modern era stated: “The planner terminates work on a wicked problem, not for reasons inherent in the “logic” of the problem.

As Rittel offers, we stop for considerations that are external to the problem: he runs out of time, or money, or patience. We finally say, “That’s good enough.” And then we withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other example where we accomplished not what we set out to try to do, but something far short of it.

So, when you encounter “problem-solution” for something complex the military is addressing- we just might be using the wrong words tied to imprecise concepts that are inappropriate for the particular challenge we face. Could JPP or our military decision-making managerial methods and models consider beyond the “problem-solution” mindset?

What if Ackoff’s ideas on “problem” became integrated into everything that we do in JPP, MDMP, MCPP, or whatever service version of deliberate planning methods we prefer? Consider if “ends-ways-means” was paired to “problem absolution”? This again illuminates differences between the ancient Greeks (the word “drama” means “action”… we must act deliberately and do something, as doing nothing is considered worse), while ancient Chinese philosophy (on war, society, life, ethics, nature) found non-action as important as action, and individual action itself an alien concept. Systems move, and nature is folded within all of us so that one cannot drag oneself out and isolate, become a hero able to turn the tides of reality to force our will to pull into the present an altered future that we plan and act (drama) to accomplish. This is Greek, not Chinese… yet we today assume our Chinese military competitors can be entirely understood in our own rationalized logic and war frames.

One last thought on Ackoff- on problem resolution and dissolution. SOCOM and many combat arms forces that spend lots of time with people, especially in irregular, hybrid, or unconventional warfare will understand resolution as the preferred problem logic. Ackoff offers “resolution” as the good-enough, subjective, and context dependent alternative to “dramatically, heroically solve the problem”.

On dissolution- that is the world of design. Designers dissolve the current system by thinking synthetically, not just analytically (reduce complexity to fundamentals, isolate A from B, measure A plus B equals C, assemble system, rinse, repeat). Synthetic thinking combines Greek and Chinese thinking in a systemic, holistic attempt. It is difficult because you must gain a true Janusian mindset- to think in our preferred mental models and frames, but explore others and consider the overlap, tensions, and interplay. Problem dissolution occurs when the entire system departs in a new, emergent path that renders what we might think “today’s problem” into tomorrow’s “non-problem.” New York City had a massive horse feces problem before automobiles. Now, horse droppings are really only an issue around Central Park and tourist areas. The “problems” of the animal transportation era are gone, but entirely novel ones are now here, such as pollution, traffic, car insurance, and the need for garages and parking lots.

In the future, if autonomous vehicles and car ownership changes radically- and perhaps people subscribe for transportation in some fleet or pod configuration (you hail your ride, the AI pod shows up, moves you, and then leaves to move another subscriber or go get maintenance), then the dissolution of traffic, parking spots, and even things like auto insurance (no more accidents except in bizarre circumstances), and even garages will be obsolete in such a future reality. Problem dissolution. We don’t do it in our military strategic or operational planning at all. Maybe we should?

Missed this series thus far? Check out issue 10 here:

https://benzweibelson.medium.com/recommended-innovation-articles-and-commentary-10-killing-is-our-business-and-business-is-12690ea0243c

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