Friday, January 20, 2012

The Arc of Enterprise

In an email between colleagues yesterday, one pointed out an article in Joint Forces Quarterly and labelled it as subpar.  That's putting it nicely.  My sole contribution to the discussion was to state that this is what happens when we are overspecialized.  I didn't elaborate in the email, but I will here.  I'm still working through Richard Rumelt's Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, which I highly recommend, and a few days ago encountered a section entitled "The Arc of Enterprise."  What we are seeing today in the military, and in the government more generally, is a familiar phenomenon in business, and in health for that matter.  When you get too fat for your own good due to an advantageous "resource position," you start to not only lose the race, but to lose your own vision of how to run the race.  This need not be a terminal decline, but it must be recognized to be corrected.

The U.S. government and the Department of Defense in particular have benefitted from an extremely advantageous resource position over the past half-century.  This strong resource position, meaning that the DoD has had the advantage of having more resources than any competitor due to America's position as the world's leading economy and innovator, is not unlike Xerox's position in the middle of last century due to its plain paper copying patent.  Rumelt notes that "a strong resource position can obviate the need for sophisticated design-type strategy."  If you are the clear leader and the competition cannot touch you, there is no need to strategize.  Even if things begin to get tough, the answer most commonly turned to is to mobilize more resources.  More cowbell.

While Rumelt is writing about businesses, the words are all too familiar.  "Success leads to laxity and bloat, and these lead to decline.  Few organizations avoid this tragic arc."  While organizations with few strategic resources are forced to "adroitly coordinate actions in time and across functions," as these organizations gain a strategic advantage, they will "loosen their tight integration and begin to rely more on accumulated resources and less on clever business design. ...  They will lose the discipline of tight integration, allowing independent fiefdoms to flourish and adding so many products and projects that integration becomes impossible."

This last statement is key to understanding DoD today.  Many observers bemoan the profusion of general officers and note that these numbers are not planned to be cut as deeply as the overall force.  The ratio of general officers to troops has grown and will continue to grow during the drawdown.  This does not simply mean that we have more generals hanging around existing headquarters.  It means we have new fiefdoms pushing new products and guarding pots of resources that are not integrated with the rest of the force.  We have the director of this center of excellence and the commanding general of that command, each with a flashy name and each with a new age explanation as to why we need them in modern warfare.  Meanwhile, they pursue programs and supposed solutions in single-minded vigor, guarding and expending resources in a rabbit hole rather than pursuing business and military strategies integrated across functions and time.  Look at a professional journal and see who is publishing most of the articles you don't read.  Directors and staffs of these agencies are constantly justifying their existence and their pot of money.  This, my friends, is the path to hell, decadence, and strategic decline.  And all for a billet and fitrep and award bullets.  While each believes he or she is doing his best to save the world, the rest of us know most of this is a joke.  The joke is on us, though, because no one cares to impart discipline on the system that got them to where they are and their interests have been so fully entwined with the interests of the organization and of the nation that there is no discerning them anymore.

Meanwhile, Rumelt observes that it is this fairly predictable trajectory that opens the door to strategic upstarts.

Reform is not coming from within the military ranks of DoD.  The budget crunch may help to remove some of the resource advantages and force more thinking, but until a truly visionary and iron-willed civilian reformer comes along with a machete and a blowtorch, I don't think the rabbits are coming out of their holes.


  1. I wrote this four years ago in an article called "Nature Redux." Still holds true today?

    "Conceptual blocks confound the most informed as the scientific method and unproved theorems cloud the framing. Specialization in learning separates emotion and utility as mutually exclusive. Is the function of my heart not intertwined with my brain? These experts proclaim today’s problems as too complex, hostile, dynamic, and confusing and dub them wicked, messy, and irreconcilable. The experts seek to minimize the consequences instead of solving the problem. Muddling through towards emptiness as secondary and tertiary effects dovetail into the wretched social conflict left unprovoked- the meta-game is hidden by the blinders of our lack of creativity."

  2. Tell me how you reward someone, and I'll probably be able to predict how they'll act. Unless we stop funding and promoting in service stovepipes, we'll never see true innovation and reform in the DoD.

  3. Backwards ObserverJanuary 22, 2012 at 8:21 PM

    More cowbell.

    ‘Cult’ classics
    Hard rockers Blue Oyster Cult live on in pop-culture tributes - NY Post, Jan 1, 2012

    "The most famous member of Blue Oyster Cult is probably late cowbell player Gene Frenkle, a fan of too-tight T-shirts who made his mark on the band’s 1976 hit, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” It takes nothing away from Frenkle or the band that Gene Frenkle doesn’t actually exist."

    Read more:

    On Your Feet Or On Your Knees! :?)