Strategy and time

I’m just dashing off a short article, spinning off a chapter in the book I’m writing. In turn, here’s a short post about the short article. Work it baby!

Strategy, I contend, is inherently about making judgments in time. We seek to use violence instrumentally to reach some desired future state. And we are guided by the past when we do so. Strategy is temporal.

The problem is that we are not good judges of time. Utility theory, the basis of many rational actor models, is fundamentally flawed, because we do not have consistent, stable preferences. The very act of choosing an option, for example, increases its value to us – a phenomenon known as the endowment effect. Preferences are not revealed by choices, so much as created by them. That’s particularly true if the choice we make is emotionally engaging, as war is – passionately so, ofttimes.

As for memory, our only handrail, we also construct that from our present condition too – leading, among other biases, to mood congruent memory. Memory truly is postmodern – a view that emerges from neuroscience, that hardest of sciences. In other bad news for rational models, we are poor judges of risk, overweighting improbable events, particularly if we have vivid memories of previous examples.

Where does that leave strategy? In a fix.

We frequently lament our limited capacity for strategic thought – but without a clear, imminent existential threat, there is always scope to interpret the national interest. Strategy becomes an act of imagination. Trouble is, the future we imagine we want might not actually be so pressing when we actually arrive there. And the cognitive models of cause and effect that we draw on to guide the way are susceptible to all sorts of flaws – our memories are unrepresentative constructions that underweight chance and overweight the emotionally engaging.

So when it comes to balancing ends ways and means, or even discerning them – the very essence of strategy – forget it. Instead it’s perhaps better to think about strategy in its less ‘grand strategic’ sense – and instead conceptualise it as the organisation of power in the moment, in response to contingencies. Stop trying to anticipate the future so much, because, as Philip Tetlock has shown, we are rather bad at it.


9 thoughts on “Strategy and time

  1. Francis Grice says:

    “Strategy, I contend, is inherently about making judgments in time…The problem is that we are not good judges of time.”

    The fact I’m reading your post and commenting, rather than working on either of the two conference papers due in by the end of this month leads me to the conclusion I’m not a very good strategist!

  2. Kenneth Payne says:

    Get on with it!! Can you send me those papers, Francis? ta! Also, I’m at Strand tomorrow, if you’re about.

  3. Francis Grice says:

    Will do! Sending you an email about tomorrow (so as not to clog up your post with comments about meeting…)

  4. Chirality says:

    Firstly, I’m hard to convince that you really accept strategy is only for the moment. However, for arguments sake I’ll bite.

    Where to start..?

    Although I wholly agree in the general with your examples, the psychological phenomena you describe, (essentially what we might loosely call the (mainly) sub-cortical unconscious/pre-conscious processing that commands our conscious behaviour and decisions) I don’t subscribe to your conclusions in relation to strategy.

    Strategy is fundamentally a dynamic ‘process’ carried out over time, not in the moment. A process involving the interaction of many individuals and elements over a period of time. True, that under pressure of time, strategy may have to temporarily exist in the moment, but on the whole good strategy resides outside of this constraint.

    Good strategy is, as many have written, far from easy and generally speaking takes time to shape. It is this shaping by many individuals with differing roles that, hopefully, removes the susceptibilty to individual bias. Then we may be left with only group or cultural bias as an artefact. And this cultural bias is clearly an element that good strategists will take into consideration. An awareness and appreciation of cultural bias – your own and your opponents – is but one element in the shaping of decent strategy.

    Also, (and to repeat a comment on mine from a prior thread) the rational actor of strategic theory does not have to behave in a rational manner at all. They are not required to be well balanced, logical or statistical in thought. They can quite comfortably be rational in the strategic sense whilst at the same time being witless, deranged and largely illogical – there are plenty of examples. The rational actor of strategy only needs to exhibit rationality in behaving in a manner consistent with trying to attain their desired ends. These efforts can quite happily be ill advised, imperfect and biased, it is ultimately the desire to attain these ends that makes the actor rational. Good strategy will again take this in its stride.

    First rate strategy is ‘adaptable’ to unforeseen events, helps us simplify complexity and manage uncertainty. This utility is only achieved by, as Joly de Maizeroy wrote in 1777, “reflection, a combination of ideas, foresight, reasoning in depth….the study of the relationship between time, positions, means and different interests, and takes ‘every factor’ into account…” So he agrees with your ‘judgements in time’, but we might also interpret ‘every factor’ as including psychological factors. Then we have Bernard Brodie describing strategic interests whilst at the same time talking in terms of national leaders, “…highly fallible and inevitably biased human judgement…”. Strategy may not know the neuroscience underpinning a behaviour, it may not fully understand the psychological foundation of significant actors, but the one thing it does do is to take the significant psychological factors into account.

    You say that without a clear, imminent threat that strategy becomes an act of imagination. Well, here it’s a case of yes and no. No, not in the way you are implying, but yes in that imagination helps to conceive as many possibilities and courses of action. A necessary element in preparing, evaluating and producing excellent strategy.

    Therefore, in short, yes I agree that strategy is about making judgements in time, but it is made no less worthwhile by a lack of a clear threat or perceived weaknesses in our psychological judgement. What may be interesting is what neuroscience and psychology might teach us. How we might be able to polish the lens of clarity and better focus on our own and our opponents making of superior strategy.

    Look forward to the publication of the book.

    • Quintin says:

      Ah, but are we talking about Strategy or are we talking about Good Strategy (a concept that I have been trying to avoid lately)?

      This is not the first occasion when Strategy has been described (once again, a carefully selected term – we are not searching for a definition) as a system of expediencies – Molkte Elder (he of battle plans’ general survival in the face of the first contact with the enemy) cited that specifically (and I do not know where he got that from, so it may pre-date even him). The question is – what does it mean?

      According to the Oxford English Dictionary “expediency” means suitability to the circumstances or conditions of the case; fitness [for purpose]; advantage. In terms of the ways of applying means of coercion towards an end that is untenable for the opponent, is that not it? In fact, would it be out of order to say that the effectiveness of a strategy (an instance of, as opposed to the abstract of earlier) could be measured in relation to, (returning to the OED definition), its suitability to the circumstances? It is within that single term (circumstances) that we find the universe for strategy locked up in: space, time, desired ends, available means – it is all there.

      It is true that humans are not so great at predicting the future – heck, we cannot even get the past right most of the times. But Strategy is not about predicting the future – the ends that we seek are almost always predetermined for us by virtue of the policy that we are merely seeking to continuing. Even when a degree of forecasting is required, being a system of expediencies, Strategy should adapt to remain expedient as the events unfurl. When Strategy is effective, it is also a self-healing process. And when it is not, it is not. Of two strategists locked in the dialectic, at least one will lose – often both.

    • Chirality says:

      Good comment on good strategy.

      My interpretation of the original post was that it suggests, in brief, that unconscious psychological factors render strategy predetermined, blind and biased. Which further compounded by a lack of clear threat makes it little more than a fiction of the mind, impotent and meaningless other than possibly in the moment. In short why bother?

      I was trying (although apparently not very well) to differentiate and identify good strategy as separate from what Kenneth suggests in the post is strategy – something without unconscious bias factored in. The original posting is an interesting discussion piece on perhaps forgotten or unseen human factors which can adversely (or positively) influence effective strategy making. The point I was trying to make was that in the best descriptors of strategy these psychological factors are almost always taken into account. The real question should be what factors are, or are not, taken into account? By what means are they taken into account? How well they are taken into account? What tools does psychology and neuroscience bring to the strategy making table in order to answer these questions? (the suspect the answer might be read Kenneth’s book!!)

      You say, “It is within that single term (circumstances) that we find the universe for strategy locked up in: space, time, desired ends, available means – it is all there.” I couldn’t agree more. Nail on the head! Perfectly put! It is indeed the circumstances that make strategy so compelling a subject and at the same time so challenging to pin down. Why there is no secret formula to making strategy and as Harry Yarger succinctly wrote, “why few do it well”! But at the same time describing strategy as, “the ways of applying means of coercion towards an end that is untenable for the opponent” is not enough. It’s a good elevator pitch, but that’s all. No one is going to go to work with just that in their pocket and expect to come out of a fight clean. It is just the skeleton upon which forensic thought must build upon, layer by layer, to create a meaningful, useful image. It is the difference between taking human bias in to consideration, and stacking the odds in your favour, or not and stacking the odds against.

      I agree again that strategy is not about predicting the future, and in design should be deliberately adaptive to revealing events. However, as much as it is not predictive it is proactive. Harry Yarger again, “Strategy assumes that while the future cannot be predicted, the strategic environment can be studied, assessed, and, to varying degrees, anticipated and manipulated. Only with proper analysis can trends, issues, opportunities, and threats be identified, influenced, and shaped through what the state chooses to do or not do”. One final comment – although strategy is subservient to policy ends it is no slave. Strategy is dynamic and as much as policy shapes strategy, strategic analysis must also help in the shaping of policy.

    • Quintin says:

      Good comment on good strategy.

      Thank you – and as always, I enjoy debating these topics with you.

      I’m not particularly fond of the ways-means-ends shorthand myself… but it sells, (and quickly), so I plead expediency. That said, like Ken, I am using this shorthand as the essence of Strategy: that what is essential, or that what Strategy cannot do without. Take away ways-means-ends, and you are left with something else – not sure what… perhaps AfPak. Strategy, as a ‘container of things’ is obviously capable of carrying much more than ways-means-ends. In addition to this, ways-means-ends is not a perfect fit for Strategy. For instance, when a lollipop lady sticks out (ways) her sign (means) to stop the traffic (ends), we would not call that an instance of strategy, would we? But people write books about this little word, and I am not. So shorthand for the time being.

      There are a couple of things about the OP that I feel should be addressed… the most pressing being the statement: Preferences are not revealed by choices, so much as created by them. I am of the opinion (as we dive under the cranium) that the relationship between preference and choice is more complex than that – but at the very least, preference being the primary. That is, preference begat choice. That what Ken observes – the endowment effect – is little more than the safeguarding of our preferences. We learn from Damasio[1] that one of the last processes of human decision-making, is the value rinse… our remaining options are subjected to that what we prefer. That what manifests as the endowment effect, is only a Cognitive Dissonance-based protection of the selected option.[2] Forming part of our error-correction regimes, (the implicated neural area is the anterior cingulate cortex), it would not look that great if our own preferences would be proven ‘wrong’.

      What is less obvious regarding endowment, (at least in the first wash), is that this process is equally linked to our capacity for emotion. Far from machine-like attributes being more desirable for the process of decision-making, it appears that without it, the human merely selects the ‘first option’ – often highly unsuitable. So the emotion-deprived human is less capable of producing decisions based on preference, and because of that, his decision-making is rubbish. Reflecting on it though, this too gets relegated to the domain of the obvious – preferences are emotional expressions. One of the first preferences that we acquire is for breast milk (most of us are eventually weaned off the milk part). As new-born babies, we quickly learn to like the one with the soft skin and voice, and carry-on lunch… but the one with the scratchy face and no milk? Not that much. In terms of the neural topology, we have an area specifically implicated in the recall of emotional memories (the amygdala). We know from Kandel[3] and Ramachandran[4] that the amygdala is hit whenever we make decisions – in particular (but not exclusively) those relating to the four primary reflexes (the four F’s: fighting, fleeing, feeding and making jiggy) – those primordial activities that require the body to be placed in a homeostatic imbalance by the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Decision-making (at all levels) is an emotional business.

      The ‘how to’ guy regarding this, is Hebb, as he links emotion with arousal (I’m sure he did not mean it that way), and arousal with motivation.[5] Once at the motivation station, you can hop trains over to Maslow for a whole title on the topic and its relationship with personality.[6]

      Where does that leave us? Hopefully with an understanding of how the endowment effect fits into the scheme of things. About how decisions are made? Not that much. But in recognition that we’re not in Kansas anymore, (and if there is an appetite for this), we could perhaps explore it in a later post. About how we pursue ways of applying means towards an end? Once again, not that much. The first step may be to revisit the essence of strategy. But that would also belong to a later post.

      1. See Damasio, Antonio (1994/2006), Descartes’ Error, (London: Vintage), chapter 3 for the ‘Elliott’ case study.
      2. Festinger, Leon cited in Dixon, Norman F. (1976/1994), On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, (London: Pimlico), p.165.
      3. Kandel, Eric R. (2006), In Search of Memory, (New York: Norton), p.345.
      4. Ramachandran, V.S. (2011), The Tell-tale Brain, (London: Heinemann), p.65.
      5. Hebb, Donald Olding (1958/1968), A Textbook of Psychology, (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders), chapter 11 (but be careful of the S.L.A. Marshall reference).
      6. Maslow, Abraham H. (1954/1987), Motivation and Personality, (New York: Longman), ff.

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  6. I only just found Kings of War.. (I know) anyway the basic question is I went to the app store and even that one where it says website when I added the comment here … BUT I can’t find any apps relating to Kings of war at all. And always has up and coming apps as well as all those at the app store, can you PLEEEEEZE tell me where your KoW app is located


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