Aha Insight from the US Army: Strategy for Complex Environments

Strategy/policy approaches are often inadequate for figuring out what we should do because they ignore reality. The world is uncertain, but we try to plan based on what we believe is certain. We should be planning based on hypotheses that the world operates like a complex adaptive system, everything is always changing, and most things about the future are uncertain.

A complex adaptive system is a good model for how the real world operates. Like the real world a complex adaptive system is constantly changing, but not changing in a predictable, linear, incremental fashion. When faced with a real-world situation—a situation that is hard to describe because of poor-quality information, many interconnections, and many uncertainties—we can start with a framework for complex adaptive systems and apply a strategy/policy decision process that will enable us to make some sense of a complex, dynamic situation, understand the limits of that sense, and generate good strategies for the situation. And because we’re dealing with a dynamic system, we need a process that will accommodate the change that will be continuous and prepare us to respond to that change as necessary.

New US Army Doctrine for Complex Environments

One very interesting approach put forth for achieving goals in a complex adaptive system is the proposed management doctrine of the US Army for designing and executing military operations in complex operational environments, like insurgency situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command, United States Army recently described that doctrine in Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design, Department of the Army TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500.

As outlined in the US Army’s pamphlet, complexity is significant to military commanders because it’s a basic characteristic of operational problems. The military defines an operational problem as a discrepancy between the state of affairs as it is and the state of affairs as it ought to be that compels military action to resolve that discrepancy. The complexity of operational problems ranges from tame, well-structured problems to those that are extremely complex and ill-structured. Unfortunately, most management doctrine today in the military—as well as in civil-government service and private corporations—is for well-structured problems hence the need for a different doctrine and the understanding for when to apply it.

Well-structured problems are controlled through technical reduction and a systematic method-based solution. They are easier to recognize and characterize. Most modern tactical doctrine of military services fits this mold, specifying the tasks, conditions, and standards for every task in warfare from tank gunnery to conducting a defense. The most structured problems often have just one correct solution, and success requires learning to perfect the established technique.

Medium-structured problems are more interactively complex, and while there is no single correct solution, personnel will agree on the structure of the problem, appropriate tasks, and the end state, but may disagree about how the general principles in doctrine are applied on a specific piece of terrain against a specific enemy. In a medium-structured problem, it is possible for a defense to succeed against one enemy commander yet fail against another under precisely the same circumstances. The difference between success and failure in this case is a function of interactive complexity, rather than a structural or technical difference between the two

In planning for a well- or medium-structured military situation, personnel will focus on the linear phenomena rather than the non-linear. They will focus on the practice of war, which is based upon professional consensus and is authoritatively prescribed in doctrine, rather than the art of war, which is based upon intuition and genius. Leader development processes are not designed to produce geniuses because geniuses are idiosyncratic. Instead, leader development processes are based on previous experience and practice and the linear phenomena that can be controlled and on whose structure personnel can agree.

Ill-structured (also called wicked) problems require a completely different orientation. Ill-structured problems are interactively complex, non-linear, and chaotic—and therefore the most challenging. Unlike well- or medium-structured problems, smart people will disagree about how to solve an ill-structured problem, what should be the end state, and whether the desired end state is even achievable.

A number of challenges need to be overcome to address an ill-structured problem.

  • The first challenge is that at the root of the lack of consensus about how to solve an ill-structured problem is the difficulty in agreeing on the structure of the problem. Unlike medium structured problems, it is not clear what action to take, because the nature of the problem itself is not clear. There’s not even a definitive way to formulate an ill-structured problem. For an ill-structured problem, the information needed to understand the problem depends upon how one defines it. And the solution depends upon how one understands the problem, or how one answers the question: “What is causing this problem?” Ill-structured problems rarely have a single cause, and different stakeholders will see the relationships between the causes and their importance differently. Thus, understanding and formulation depend to some degree upon the perspective of the problem-solver rather than some objective truth. Thus an ill-structured problem cannot be known, but must be surrounded.
  • The second challenge in addressing an ill-structured problem is one cannot understand an ill-structured problem without proposing a solution. Understanding the problem and conceiving a solution are identical and simultaneous cognitive processes. For example, if one describes bankrupt commodity producers as the result of falling demand and lower commodity prices from a weak economy, our solution will be different than if we describe bankrupt commodity producers as the result of building too much supply capacity. The formulation of the problem points in the direction of a particular solution.
  • A third challenge is every ill-structured problem is essentially unique and novel. Historical analogies can provide useful insights for individual aspects of the larger problem, but the differences among even similar situations are profound and significant. The political goals at stake, the stakeholders involved, the cultural milieu, the histories, and other dynamics will all be novel and unique to a particular situation.
  • A fourth challenge is that ill-structured problems have no fixed set of potential solutions. Since each ill-structured problem is a one-of-a-kind situation, it requires a custom solution rather than a standard solution modified to fit circumstances. For well- and medium-structured problems, best practices offer standard templates for action, standard ways of doing things that have to be adapted to specific circumstances. There is no similar kit of generic solutions for ill-structured problems. The dynamics that make an operational problem unique also demand the design of a custom solution. Additionally, there is no way to prove that all solutions to an ill-structured problem have been identified and considered.
  • The fifth challenge is that solutions to ill-structured problems are better or worse, not right or wrong. There is no objective measure of success and different stakeholders may disagree about the quality of a solution. The suitability of a solution will depend upon how the individual stakeholders have formulated the problem and what constitutes success for them.
  • The sixth challenge is that ill-structured problems are interactively complex. Operational problems are socially complex because people have tremendous freedom of interaction. Since interactively complex problems are non-linear, a relatively minor action can create disproportionately large effects. The same action performed on the same problem at a later time may produce a different result. Interactive complexity makes it difficult to explain and predict cause and effect.
  • The seventh challenge is that every solution to an ill-structured problem is a ‘one-shot operation.’ Every attempted course of action has effects that create a new situation and cannot be undone. The consequences of direct action are effectively irreversible. Whenever actions are irreversible and the duration of their effects is long, every attempted action counts.
  • The eighth challenge is there is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to an ill-structured problem. The perceived quality of a solution to an ill-structured problem can change over time; yesterday’s solution might appear good today, but disastrous tomorrow as the unintended effects become clearer. Measurable results to a particular action may not appear for some time. This time lag complicates assessment enormously, because in the meantime the operational command may have executed other actions, which will make assessing cause and effect even more difficult.
  • The ninth challenge is that ill-structured problems have no ‘stopping rule’. It is impossible to say conclusively that such a problem has been solved in the sense that a student knows when she or he has solved a math problem. Work on an ill-structured problem will continue until strategic leaders judge the situation is “good enough,” or until stakeholder motivations, will, or resources have been diverted or exhausted.
  • The tenth challenge is that every ill-structured problem is a symptom of another problem. The causal explanation for a problem will determine the range of possible solutions. Yet, solving one problem often reveals another higher-level problem of which the original one was a symptom. The level at which an operational problem is solved depends upon the authority, confidence, and resources of a particular commander. One should not simply cure symptoms, but should rather strive to solve the problem at the highest possible level. However, if the problem is formulated at too high a level, the broader and more general it becomes and therefore the less likely it is to solve particular aspects of the specific problem.
  • The eleventh challenge is that the problem-solver has no right to be wrong. The writ of an operational commander and his staff is to improve the state of affairs as his superiors perceive it. Like others in senior positions of an organization, he is responsible for the consequences of the actions he generates.

Given these challenges facing military leaders, the process for confronting an ill-structured problem—for trying to have a healthy future in a complex adaptive system—has to be very different from how situations were generally approached in the past. The US Army pamphlet identifies several key features for a new approach:

  • Shared development of plausible scenarios. The task of defining the problem will require much more work and insight than before, and it’s not something that can be done top down by the commander. Instead, given the uncertainties and complexities of future situations, commanders must approach the problem with a holistic systems perspective using both bottom up and top down inputs. Ultimately, developing a shared understanding of the external environment situation is a critical success factor in defining the problem and quantitative models won’t be very useful. Instead, qualitative, heuristic approaches will be needed to create a shared understanding of the circumstances and possibilities. Based on my experience, a very good holistic approach for creating a shared understanding of the problem or challenge, and one that recognizes the problem or challenge is going to evolve over time with the actions of the participants and unfolding dynamics, is the scenario development process.
  • Shared strategy decision-making. Since each strategy and action solution will be a function of the shared understanding developed for the particular problem or challenge, a top-down developed solution probably wouldn’t work. The process for developing a solution should involve all the key stakeholders and utilize the scenarios.
  • Prepare for continuous change. Since a critical feature of insurgency conflicts is how rapidly the situation or problem changes over time, all participants are in an unrelenting struggle to learn and adapt rapidly, and they do. Over time the original shared understanding of a problem or challenge will no longer be valid and will need to be changed, resulting consequently in the need for an adjusted strategy and action plan. Organizations will need:
    • A continuous process of strategy, with abilities for ongoing monitoring, assessing, and making adjustments to the action plan;
    • Companies and squads closest to the action in the field need the responsibility and authority to conduct that process and make the adjustment decisions. The best information and awareness of the changing situation is in the field and there’s often not enough time for those in the field to brief those at the top and involve them in a process to develop a suitable response;
    • Individual squad members to be utility players more than specialists, able to play multiple roles as needed. New task responsibilities of the squads are assigned to those best suited to carrying them out. The activities of individuals will shift as required by the circumstances.

Implication for Policy and Strategy Development for Global Situations

If this Army doctrine makes sense for complex operational environments, then private corporations, local government agencies, and community planning committees should all use similar principles when developing strategy. But instead they employ processes that are linear and top down and don’t have a good chance of succeeding. They focus on the certainties rather than the uncertainties; they look at issues in isolation rather than being part of an interconnected environment; they forecast or assume one future rather than anticipate a range of plausible futures; they assume a best solution can be found; and they don’t plan for the inevitable change in the future after implementation begins.

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