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Another piece that should be posted in every Federal department office and Parliament House.  Tyler Cowan argues that politicisation, not the markets per se, is the root cause of the current financial troubles.  Bad policies, bad regulation and political interference in the market mechanism led banks and organisations such as GM being ‘too big to fail’: they were propped up and protected from market realities.  Further interference is not the solution.

Today we have a financial-regulatory complex, and it has meant a consolidation of power and privilege. We’ve created a class of politically protected “too big to fail” institutions, and the current proposals for regulatory reform further cement this notion. Even more worrying, with so many explicit and implicit financial guarantees, we are courting a bigger financial crisis the next time something major goes wrong.

We should stop using political favors as a means of managing an economic sector.

Financial markets are subject to criticality—and so catastrophe and collapse—just as a natural system.  Preventing small failures—including through political favours and protecting interest groups—inevitably leads to more pent up energy and catastrophes.  Good system design allows constant small failures, as in an efficient market.  And even those ‘too big to fail’ must be allowed to fail, naturally—or some means found to bleed off the criticality, and reduce their size—else risk complete catastrophe.

Frank Hoffman applies a useful framework—that of Cohen and Gooch in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (1990)—to assess success and failure in the Long War

Cohen and Gooch identified three organisationally based failures that contributed to military failure: the failure to anticipate; the failure to learn; and the failure to adapt.

In the case of the Long War, Hoffman argues that

[t]he combination of civilian policymakers and a narrow military conception of its professional jurisdiction set the stage for serial failures in anticipation in the run-ups to both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in the fall of 2002 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.

Misunderstanding the nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan was aggravated by a failure to learn:

For several decades, thanks in large part to lingering attitudes from the Vietnam War, irregular warfare has been an intellectual and strategic orphan in U.S. professional military institutions. The heavy cost of both wars is the price paid for ignoring known historical lessons and for a narrow military cultural prism that constrained U.S. strategic and operational planning and the intellectual readiness of our Officer Corps.

Adaptation is one element that is tested constantly. 

Adaptation is the ability “to handle the changing present” and the interactive nature of war. Strategic and operational adaptation is a key element in warfare, one often retarded by ideological policies or by military cultures that fail to recognize how critical assumptions in prewar planning have been proven to be false on the battlefield.

Hoffman seems a little more optimistic regarding adaptation, noting adaptation, after a slow start, at both operational and strategic levels.  He remains worried, however, that cultural and organisational inertia will dampen continuing adaptation, where–in the overused phrase of the day–the ‘rubber hits the road’.   

Lessons for strategic policy-makers and military planners

I’m going to borrow shamelessly from Hoffman (and of course Cohen and Gooch), and suggest the same framework be used as a means of intellectual self-discipline within national strategic policy circles within the Australian Government.  It could comprise a strategic-level ‘ALA’ loop, replacing the tactically oriented OODA loop, which is semi-voguish even in policy circles.

Anticipate.  The key is to avoid the use—or imposition—of false or misleading assumptions.  So we would question, for example:

  • what have we not anticipated;
  • are we anticipating the right things;
  • how well do we understand prospective adversaries, friends and allies and their reaction to events;
  • are the lenses–cognitive biases and conceptual frameworks–through which we view the world the right ones, and if not, what are;
  • are we looking too far ahead and neglecting key trends that will change the security environment in the meantime;
  • does our current force and capability unnecessarily bound our assumptions about the security environment and prospective contingencies
  • have we fully appreciated how our own presence, outlook and posture affect our security environment; and
  • do we fully understand the pace of threat development and the nature of signals from prospective threats.

Learn. The ability to learn depends heavily on the intellectual readiness—and to my mind, openness and curiosity as well as rigour—on the part of both military and civilians.  Questions may include:

  • what practices do we have that will enable us to learn quickly;
  • are there best practices that we can apply to gain leverage over our environment;
  • are there new skills, sources of knowledge and understanding, and insights that we need to develop;
  • are there practices that need to be revised, that hamper learning, that should be eliminated;
  • what organisational cultural practices need to be adjusted to assist learning;
  • what are the constants in the nature of war and strategy, and how are they altered by technology, culture, society and economics;
  • what lessons can we learn from our experience, and those of others, both in the present and past; 
  • how do our lessons learnt, and our understanding of concepts and security environment, affect our ability to anticipate threats and changes in the security environment; and
  • more domain-specific issues, such as how can we think sensibly about strategy in space and cyberspace, and how does the use of force translate into and out of those domains.

Adapt.  Warfare—and strategy—co-evolves with the environment, adversary and interests, so that militaries and policy-makers must constantly review their own circumstances and adapt to changes.  We need to ask constantly questions such as:

  • is the process of adaptation occurring sufficiently quickly, or is it attempting to jump too far ahead;
  • is the diversity of approaches sufficient to counter a range of possible futures, or are there too many divergent activities and approaches;
  • is there sufficient depth to the adaptive processes, extending back through training, recruitment and education;
  • what processes and structures need to be altered to enable better adaptability;
  • if our judgments (based on our ability to anticipate and learn) prove to be wrong, how quickly can we adjust and adjust successfully;
  • how can we ensure consistency of approach is not reduced to rigid dogma; and 
  • how can we best incorporate learning, in decision-making, policy formulation, strategy design, operational needs, capability requirements, and the shape and size of budgets and resources.

An organisational culture in which such questions are posed regularly–even as part of business as usual, as more formal processes are often captured by service interests and political imperatives–would help offset prospective failure in individual elements, and the catastrophe that would result from the aggregated failure or two or more elements.

August 2020