‘Learning to drop one’s tools to gain lightness, agility, and wisdom tends to be forgotten in an era where leaders and followers alike are preoccupied with knowledge management, acquisitions, and acquisitiveness.’[i]
– Karl Weick
In today’s adaptive conflict environments, our military and governmental institutions demand that professionals employ ‘critical thinking’ to make precise, heedful decisions that correspond to effective actions. Yet critical thinking requires a strong element of organizational introspection. We not only should consider the individuals that comprise our current organization, but also the conceptual processes and institutional constructs that function invisibly around us. We rarely question these things for two important reasons. First, we tend not to notice them. When we do, it seems questioning them often comes with unwelcome consequences, as we end up addressing issues beyond individual or group actions. Bringing some of the ineffective, irrelevant, or even harmful institutionalisms regularly employed by the organization to light is often dangerous work.
We are not about to embark on a journey of splitting tactical hairs such as what flavor of counterinsurgency theory works best, or whether one form of maneuver is ‘better’ than another. These are methodological (the principles and rules of how to do something) arguments that relate to tools. Whereas at an epistemological (how we know how to do something) level, we stop talking about tools. Instead, we start considering the social constructs that decide what tools we can use, and how we go about employing them.
The word ‘epistemological’ is an uncommon term, but essential for conveying how one might ‘pop out of’ thinking about the tools we employ. It helps us contemplate the abstract notions of some of the methodological ‘baggage’ that shape how we do things.[ii] Tools are a useful metaphor, with the opening quote to this article from Karl Weick’s organizational study of disastrous situations such as forest fires. Weick studied the epistemological reasons on why firefighters died with their tools in their hands instead of dropping them to survive. Weick wrote of methodologies symbolizing ‘tools’ while he took aim at deeper organizational issues. For us, reflective consideration of military epistemological forces will help us scratch away the surface and get to the deeper phenomenon at play. One way to help distinguish between a series of questions that aim towards epistemology rather than methodology is the employment of ‘why’ versus ‘what’ in a series of questions.
To expand on this idea, an infantry unit might use a series of navigational tools and methodologies to get to a new location. At the epistemological level, western militaries use the science of mathematics (including Earth’s magnetic field for a compass) as well as literacy and cardinal directions. They will not use divining rods, animal spirits, or Native American tracking techniques to navigate. This distinction is not about the tools, but about how we know to do navigation, and how we do not.[iii] Here are some observations on how the military as an institution tends to make sense of conflict environments at an epistemological level in potentially dangerous or unhelpful ways.
The Enemy has a Vote
It seems we utter the phrase ‘the enemy has a vote’ at most every intelligence update, planning session, and post-operation review. What does that phrase mean, and why do we employ it? You might not even give it a second thought, but this is how epistemological processes function in our organizations – in plain sight and unnoticed. It is usually associated with what military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz described as the ‘fog and friction’ in warfare, or the element of surprise that a thinking enemy presents.[iv] It is a euphemism for ‘our prediction for action may be flawed…it is always possible that the enemy might do something we have not considered.’
It might also mean, ‘If the enemy happens to do something I did not mention in detail, I would like to cover that risk with this platitude. Therefore, I have essentially predicted all possible outcomes including those I do not know right now.’ Metaphorically, ‘the enemy has a vote’ states the obvious, while masking deeper institutionalisms at work. Ultimately, it is a defense mechanism of sorts, but it operates to actually inhibit critical thinking. Let us take an epistemological focus on why we say this term, and focus inward.
The phrase provides a retroactive form of protection for prediction, set to defend the very processes that might be entirely wrong in how we sense-make what the enemy might do. Yet when ‘the enemy votes’ and does act in a manner that disrupts, neutralizes, or even defeats our careful predictions into the future state of the conflict environment, we tend to look at the tools, or the firefighter in question. We reflect only upon our methodologies or individual performance, and not the epistemological aspects of what we did (or failed to do). While commander or staff officer might have made a bad decision, what about when they performed everything in full accordance with existing doctrine, policy, and sound methodologies? We focus on tools too often, and not enough on why we use those tools. Consider the following series of performance-related questions below:
- ‘Should we have remained mounted until we further isolated the objective?’
- ‘Did we employ our supporting fire positions in the right terrain to support the dismounted elements?’
- ‘Did the Commander on the ground make the right call to clear the first building instead of the second larger building?’
- ‘Should our mission have stated that we were neutralizing instead of destroying?’
- ‘Did we identify the right decision point?’
- ‘The enemy occupied different buildings, so how could we have better maneuvered our forces to prevent effective suppressive fire?’
- ‘Our intelligence was fixated on the insurgent network, but it turned out that the criminal network was far more dangerous to our mission.’
These are all either methodological or individual/unit performance criticisms, and by no means are they not useful. However, un-provable phrases such as ‘the enemy gets a vote’ become pre-emptive strikes to halt any epistemological query toward how the organization constructs decision-making. We defend the process by excusing errors as anything but the result of performers – not our decision-making system itself. Here are a few generic examples of critical epistemological questions one might employ if we dismiss the notion that ‘the enemy has a vote’:
- ‘Did our military decision-making process help us make sense of the situation so that we might anticipate what the enemy eventually did?’
- ‘Did our planning process solve the wrong problem right, but miss the right problem entirely? If so – why?’
- ‘Did we dismiss any observations or considerations prior to our actions because they did not ‘fit’ within our preconceived structure of how the world works?’
- ‘Are any of our societal or institutional values driving us to a flawed perspective on anticipating, acting, and reflecting on incidents?’
- ‘Are we comfortable with finding fault with individuals because faulting the overarching institution is harder to fix? We can fire or retrain individuals because it is within our power; changing the organization is often not.’
The aforementioned epistemological queries do not change the element of change (fog and friction) in military conflicts. Rather, it helps transform how we as an organization sense-make and reflect upon our actions. Imagine a woodworker that had never seen a screw before, was successful with hammering nails, and now is facing unanticipated failure where he encounters screws for the first time. The carpenter might glance at you and utter, ‘well, those nails do have a vote’ after failed attempts to drive them into the wood.
Observe how the phrase drives us towards methodological reflection on how the operator might have hammered wrong. Instead of merely scolding the carpenter for hammering away at screws with proper form and technique, we might instead question why we are not dropping our preferred tools. This frees us to make sense of whether we require a new tool or technique. Of course, relating nails to complex military environments is an incomplete metaphor, but epistemological reflection is never easy.
Military Euphemisms and Why We Use Them
In the previous example, I explored the euphemism of ‘the enemy has a vote.’ There are plenty others, but I selected ‘the enemy has a vote’ for how innocuous it seems in military conversations during our decision-making. Euphemisms exist because our societal, institutional, or group constructs drive our behaviors and discourse to avoid saying certain unpleasant things. Again, because there are epistemological elements at work here, we often do this without even considering them. We say things without thinking about them, yet many words generate meanings with deeper contexts than what they seem on the surface. We call nursing homes ‘assisted living centers’, vomit into ‘air sickness bags’, execute criminals with a ‘lethal injection’. We use friendly terms such as ‘special education’, ‘visit the powder room’, or say ‘grandpa is not with us anymore’ to avoid unpleasant terms for the same concepts.
Euphemisms are useful within the elegance of human language, but become harmful for organizational development when we lose track of why we employ them in the first place. Karl Weick offers the notion that such actions ‘deaden imagination’ when we begin to name things and lose track of why we named them.[v] Often, the labels fail to help us make sense of new situations. Euphemisms become downright dangerous when we not only ignore them entirely, but also lose an understanding of how we solve the wrong problems because of our misdirection.
Military society has many euphemisms that traverse units, location and the unique value-based aspects of how an organization defines itself. We say ‘collateral damage’ instead of ‘civilians killed by our actions.’ We say ‘Afghan-right’ instead of ‘this society maintains different values compared to ours.’ We say ‘eliminate the target’ because it justifies our actions within the context. While I take no issue with any of these euphemisms and routinely use them myself, we need to engage in epistemological reflection on why we say what we say. Words matter; why we say something can often reveal the institutional forces at work below the surface.[vi] ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office from Kabul, Afghanistan
In planning environments, a frequent euphemism is ‘stay in your lane.’ Taken directly, it means ‘that is my job, not yours…so go do your job.’[vii] As epistemological queries operate with ‘why’ structured questioning rather than ‘what’ centric thinking, we might ask why there are lanes in the first place. The Napoleonic Staff (later the Prussian Staff) first inspired senior military leaders to compartmentalize military sense making into specialty staff components. Prior to this major development in military decision-making, militaries functioned ad hoc. The commander (often a noble or high class leader) tackled many of the aspects of intelligence, maneuver, and logistics himself. Or, the noble parceled it out to chosen and trusted individuals in an unscripted and unregimented manner. Once staffs became specialized, the notion of ‘my lane, your lane’ developed. Much of our own professional identities become nested within these constructs. Why does this matter? Epistemologically, when a military confronts a complex and adaptive problem, our tendency to break it up into smaller, manageable parts comes at a cost.[viii]
When one is sense making and simultaneously instructed to ‘stay in one’s lane’, they are subsequently confined to appreciating only one part of a problem. This prevents considering things holistically (the big picture) because doing so violates the ‘stay in your lane’ euphemism.[ix] Here, the euphemism functions undetected because at an epistemological level, the military institution is directing how to make sense of a situation, and how not to make sense. We will break things down and use specialized staffs to analyze things, even if those very things resist reductionism and require holistic appreciation.[x]
To offer another metaphor here, the reductionist staff collects huge piles of bicycle parts. The intelligence officer is the master of handlebars, while the logistician knows only brake pads and calipers. The engineer collects tires, while the medical officer knows everything about wheels. Each section zealously guards their pile, and largely ignores what is in someone else’s section. No one will ever assemble the bicycle, as each specialist is epistemologically discouraged from making sense of the entire (holistic) picture. This group not only cannot assemble bicycles, but also do poorly when they encounter a handlebar/brake/seat combination that defies the neat categories.[xi] Consider the following introspective questions for an organization facing a new, different challenge that defies categorization:
- ‘Do we look at the big, messy problem as something we want to break down?’
- ‘Does our desire to categorize and reduce help us understand, or does it potentially lead us away from what is really happening?’
- ‘Why are we defensive about who explores what, when we face new and uncertain situations that might defy the entire notion of someone’s lane?’
- ‘Specializing in our own lanes makes great experts in narrow lanes…but are we any good at blending together lots of narrow lanes into a useful highway?’
- ‘Could our past successes with different problems lead us down the wrong road for trying to solve a new problem with the wrong methods?’
Many of our euphemisms prevent us from sense making in ways foreign to what our organization prescribes as the way to think. This becomes dangerous when we encounter situations that resist our brand of sense making. The hidden danger of euphemisms is that they purposely obscure the epistemological tensions at work, and we often take them for granted.[xii]
‘What My Boss Finds Interesting I Find Fascinating as…’
The military hierarchy represents the centralized decision-making and overarching structure of control for modern militaries. In nearly all forms, information flows up while decisions move down. This is both our greatest strength, and at an epistemological level, perhaps our greatest weakness. Our discipline, ability to follow orders, and the necessity of uniformity and repetitive behaviors provides a military with tremendous flexibility, adaptability, and organizational strength. Yet we often pay this cost in the subtle silencing of critical and creative thinking, particularly when the values of loyalty and elements of nepotism influence our sense making.[xiii] I once had a General Officer take over our organization and he brought all the leadership in for his initial brief. He used the euphemism ‘what my boss finds interesting, I find fascinating as [expletive]’ to convey the importance of maintaining our military hierarchy in the absence of clear prioritization.
This phrase stuck with me over time because it presents a clear epistemological tension. If my superior (who controls and influences my progression and promotion) thinks about something in a particular way, it is in my best interest to think in a similar fashion. This works effectively when the superior makes sense of a situation and establishes some priorities that will aid in accomplishing objectives that lead towards the organizational goals.
Suppose my boss finds icebergs interesting and we are on a ship in the Northern Atlantic together. Epistemological forces should drive me to search for icebergs with zeal. I may win his favor if I generate iceberg targeting cycles, complete with intricate nodal diagrams and pattern analysis. We might develop piles of documents showing significant iceberg analysis for the subordinate organization to digest and report on.[xiv] However, what happens if I am also interested in lifeboats, our ship is named ‘The Titanic’, and we have not left dock yet? This becomes tricky because if the centralized decision-making authority is disinterested in discussing lifeboats, we risk becoming a ‘black sheep’ of sorts, or disregard this notion and move on. Later, when lifeboats do become important, it rarely does any good in a hierarchical organization to tell the boss, ‘well I told you so!’ Thus, we face a double-edged sword in how to employ critical and creative thinking within the military hierarchy. We risk jeopardizing the mission or organization despite our own institutionalisms protecting defective yet cherished features.[xv]
When the hierarchy sense-makes without tension, most personnel within the pyramid look at the situation and share similar observations, principles, and agreed upon methodologies. We do this with our rigorous procedures, indoctrinated approaches, and shared lexicon. If the boss says that icebergs are the priority, it puts me at a disadvantage to suggest that lifeboats might also be relevant, if not the paramount concern. We must support our superior’s perspectives, so how can one offer critical discourse to help aid sense making in a complex environment? This epistemological tension leads into the next point, where decision-making in the hierarchy may go awry due to the very structure that provides us our dependability and organizational strength.
‘Rank beats Rock’ and other Unfortunate Games Afoot
The very construct that provides our institution tremendous strength, uniformity, discipline, and loyalty is also a great weakness in stifling critical and creative thinking. Our hierarchy is dependent upon following orders. At an epistemological level, our institution tends to demand that the Commander is both the most intelligent and most experienced in the room. This often becomes dangerous in sense making because complex environments tend to reject wholesale experience and the linear application of ‘this worked before, so it should work here.’[xvi] Sometimes, our linear thinking processes and vast experience prevents us from seeing things in relevant yet opposing perspectives.[xvii] For example, when I worked closely with a senior leader that had nearly three decades of being a fighter pilot under his belt, it was difficult to not slide into framing every situation with an aerial engagement mentality – even when that perspective unintentionally drove us entirely the wrong way.
This becomes a destructive cycle for critical and creative thinking when the military hierarchy silences epistemological query due to status. We often use the euphemism of ‘rank beats rock [paper, scissors]’ to gloss over. One quick way to spot the ‘rank beats rock’ cycle is to notice a shortfall of ‘why-centric’ questions in favor of ‘what-centric’ queries for further guidance or direction. We engage in epistemological discovery through ‘why’ and organizational introspection, but dare not ask when the answer is ‘because I am in charge.’ Here are a few decision-making questions that split down the ‘why versus what’ paradox and may assist leaders in framing whether they are pursuing methodological or epistemological lines of thinking:
- ‘What assets are available?’
- ‘Why do we approach problems in this preferred manner?’
- ‘What do we know about the enemy?’
- ‘Why do we see some actors as enemies, yet others as friends?’
- ‘What is the first decision point for the Commander?’
- ‘Why do we see a decision here, and how does it transform the environment?’
- ‘What is measurable for quantifying mission success?’
- ‘Why do we seek to rapidly quantify action, and how might our constructs prevent us from exploring deeper issues?’
Conclusions: Bad Habits Die Hard
Our military hierarchy remains a solid institution where discipline, order, and reliability under stress are our greatest strengths. Many of our institutionalisms and methodologies function well. However, leaders at all levels might benefit from recognizing the differences between methodologies and epistemological queries. More importantly, our tendency to promote reflection of the former over the latter is of concern.
Our institutionalisms guide human behaviors in many subtle ways, from the words and phrases we use, to the social constructs we reinforce collectively in our actions and sense making. In our choice of euphemisms and our employment of our own hierarchical balancing act of power and decision-making, many of our potentially dangerous habits function in plain sight. This defines epistemological inquiry, in that we hardly recognize why we do the things we do and how we know this is.
Many today employ ‘buzz’ terms such as ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creative thinking’ around organizations in practice, yet we tend to confuse these terms with our competing notions of loyalty, structure, discipline, and teamwork. The reflective practitioner might get the Titanic’s Captain to prioritize lifeboat constructs into his iceberg plan, if she epistemologically frames the situation holistically. She includes her organizational predilections and behaviors, and artfully acknowledges the hazards of being the creative critic.
That sounds a bit too easy, particularly because Monday morning quarterbacks have all the solutions for what should have been done after the battle is over. Yet too many professionals get wrapped around methodologies where arguing over what technique or tool should be employed ends up blinding the organization to deeper epistemological questions. When these core questions help illuminate unhealthy organizational decision-making as it occurs, the reflective practitioner helps pull back the curtains and reveals how pointless a discussion on tools is when the major problem has to do with our own behaviors, values, and social constructs.
[i] Karl Weick, ‘Drop your tools: an allegory for organizational studies,’ Administrative Science Quarterly, (Vol. 41, 1996) p.6.
[ii] Mary Jo Hatch, Dvora Yanow, Methodology by Metaphor: Ways of Seeing in Painting and Research (Organizational Studies, January 2008, Vol. 29, No. 1), p. 23.
[iii] Karl Weick, The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge (European Journal of Information Systems, 2006, Vol. 15), p. 447.
[iv] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Penguin Classics, 1968), book 2, chapter 2.
[v] Karl Weick, The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge (European Journal of Information Systems, 2006, Vol. 15), p. 450.
[vi] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987).
[vii] Gareth Morgan, ‘Exploring Plato’s Cave: Organizations as Psychic Prisons’, Images of Organization, SAGE publications, 2006, p. 229.
[viii] Mary Jo Hatch, Dvora Yanow, Methodology by Metaphor: Ways of Seeing in Painting and Research (Organizational Studies, January 2008, Vol. 29, No. 1), p. 30.
[ix] Gary Jason, Critical Thinking: Developing an Effective System Logic (San Diego State University: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2001) p. 337.
[x] Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen, Hierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary, and Epistemology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) p. 1.
[xi] Karl Weick, The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge (European Journal of Information Systems, 2006, Vol. 15), p. 450.
[xii] Mary Jo Hatch, Dvora Yanow, Methodology by Metaphor: Ways of Seeing in Painting and Research (Organizational Studies, January 2008, Vol. 29, No. 1), p. 23-24.
[xiii] Pasquale Gagliardi, The Revenge of Gratuitousness on Utilitarianism; an Investigation Into the Causes and Consequences of a Collective Repression (Journal of Management Inquiry; Vol. 14 No. 4, December 2005) p. 311.
[xiv] Gerald M. Weinberg, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982) 12.
[xv] Michel Foucault, ‘Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia’, (originally covered in six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California, Berkeley in October-November, 1983), retrieved on January 06, 2014 from: http://foucault.info/documents/parrhesia/.
[xvi] Nassim Taleb, Antifragile (Random House Trade, New York, 2014), p. 46. Taleb calls it ‘the Lucretius problem’ when people only imagine the future based on their past experience.
[xvii] Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (CogNexus Institute, 2008. Retrieved on January 05, 2014 from: http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf ), 4-5.