Archive for the ‘Systems Thinking’ Category

The Army Doesn’t Have a Suicide Problem

September 29, 2011 8 comments

The Army set a somber record in July when 32 Soldiers took their own lives, the most since the Army started keeping stats in 2009.  Despite millions of dollars spent to lower suicides, they remain regrettably high.

Army Vice Chief of Staff GEN Peter Chiarelli said recently, “While the high number of potential suicides in July is discouraging, we are confident our efforts aimed at increasing individuals’ resiliency, while reducing incidence of at-risk and high-risk behavior across the force, are having a positive impact.”


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Why Thomas L. Friedman’s Gas Tax Idea Stinks

March 12, 2011 1 comment

Columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman recently proposed a $1 per gallon gas tax in his NY Times column.

Said he:

The smart thing for us to do right now is to impose a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax, to be phased in at 5 cents a month beginning in 2012, with all the money going to pay down the deficit.

The bottom line is that this idea stinks.

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Systems Thinking and Strategy –or- Why the “Spaghetti Bowl” PowerPoint Slide was Pretty Cool After All

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks to Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq for posting this great video.

Remember the Spaghetti Bowl slide?  I always felt it was useful – it just had the misfortune of being composed on PowerPoint.  Unfortunately, two separate issues became intertwined.

First, the over-use of complicated PowerPoint slides (I’m not a fan).

Second, the use of Systems Thinking and Complexity Theory to help address tough problems like counter-insurgency (I am a fan).

Check out this video in which Ecologist Eric Berlow explains why the Spaghetti Bowl was a pretty neat product after all:

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Human Terrain….Again

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

image There is an article in the November-December 2010 edition of Military Review entitled Controlling the Human High Ground: Identifying Cultural Opportunities for Insurgency.  Needless to say, I’m disappointed we continue to dwell on this idea of “Human Terrain.”  As I wrote a few weeks ago, humans are not terrain.  Humans aren’t even like terrain.  Why we use the metaphor of “terrain” to describe human beings is beyond me.

Some might wonder why I am so intent to writing about this subject.  How we model things is important.  Here is an excerpt from a paper entitled On the Mismatch Between Systems and Their Models by Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi:

There is a very serious mismatch between most social systems and the models of them that are in
Barry M. Richmond, creator of the Systems Dynamics model and I-think language makes it clear
that systems and the models of them in use are not the same. According to him “the way we think
is outdated.” He goes on to define thinking as:

consisting of two activities: constructing mental models, and then simulating them
in order to draw conclusions and make decisions. The mental model is a “selective
abstraction” of reality that we create and carry around in our head. As big as some
of our heads get, we still can’t fit reality in there. Therefore all mental model are
simplifications. They necessarily omit many aspects of the realities they

To think about anything requires an image or a concept of it, a model. To think about something
as complex as a social system we use models of similar, simpler, and/or more familiar systems.
Unfortunately, as social systems become increasingly more complex, simpler mental models of
them do not reflect their emerging properties.

In short, this is what is happening with human terrain.  We are using a simple model (terrain) to imagine or conceptualize a much more complex system (human social/cultural groups).  As a result, we draw bad conclusions about the nature of the system.  This new article from Military Review is a perfect example.  The model of “terrain” has erroneously led the author to believe that humans, like terrain, can be “controlled.”  Humans are independent beings capable of making choices.  While humans can certainly be influenced, they can never be controlled. 

On Culture and Design

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Retired Army Colonel Chris Paparone has published the fourth in a series of essays on the new Army concept of Design on Small Wars Journal.  The thesis is that in a military context, dialogue is central to the method of design, especially when operating in highly volatile, uncertain, complex and uncertain environments.  Army planners and commanders must ontinuously and collectively make sense of the situation.  Dialogue is the condition that enables such collective “sensemaking.”

I’ve followed this series of monographs with great interest. The author finally hit on what I believe to be the primary obstacle to effective Design in the Army: the culture. One could dedicate an entire monograph to this issue alone.

The author correctly points out that dialogue is key to effective Design. Senge devotes a considerable number of pages in The Fifth Discipline to dialogue and its importance. Senge contends that seeing each other as colleagues is essential to ensure the free flow of ideas. The author of this monograph builds on this concept, stating:

Ideally, participants subscribe to values associated with healthy dialogue. Hierarchical values are detrimental to good dialogue. Participants must somehow leave rank and positional authority at the door and not confuse passionate argument with insubordination or disrespect.

A recently published study of Army War College students showed Army leaders believed the Army culture should emphasize “flexibility, discretion, participation, human resource development, innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and a long-term emphasis on professional growth and the acquisition of new professional knowledge and skills.  However, it also found these same leaders believed Army culture actually emphasizes “an overarching desire for stability, control, formal rules and policies, coordination and efficiency, goal and results oriented, and hard-driving competitiveness.“

Obviously, we know what our culture should be ideally, however, the reality is our culture does not set the conditions for Design. Army culture arguably runs on the very “hierarchical values” the author points out are detrimental to dialogue. Furthermore, the situation is self-perpetuating. Officers know conforming to established norms, unquestioning compliance, and careful avoidance of slaying sacred cows is the way, not only to survive, but to be promoted. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but I think most Officers would agree that making waves is not the way to get ahead.

Until we address the underlying cultural dynamics which inhibit creative thought within the Army, effective Design will be difficult at best.

Iconoclastic Observations on Social Science

October 18, 2010 1 comment

A few weeks ago I posted a critique of Human Terrain Teams, or more specifically, the name “Human Terrain.” (see Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology? 3 OCT 10).  I also posted this entry on the Small Wars Journal discussion board, which led to an interesting discussion on Social Science and the failings therein.

The failings of Social Science are related to our methods of inquiry.  We are studying sociocultural systems just like we study physical, chemical, and biological systems.  But socioculutral systems are different and need to be studied differently.

Classical science is essentially the development of theories or models which explain behavior in a system, and thus are able to make predictions about future behavior in that system.  This is accomplished by isolating a few variables and testing cause and effect relationships through experimentation.  For example, if I wanted to find out the optimal speed to drive my car in order to get the best gas mileage, I could set up an experiment in which I measured fuel consumption at different speeds.  The independent variable is the speed of the car, and the dependent variable is the observed gas mileage.  Based on the results of this experiment, I can predict what my gas mileage will be in the future.  Barring a significant change in the system (such as a mechanical problem) my prediction will be somewhat accurate.

Why doesn’t classical science work in sociocultural systems?

1. Prediction is difficult or impossible in sociocultural systems in which the agents have a choice, emotions, subjective rationalities, cultural forces, etc…By way of contrast, in the “hard” sciences atoms (above the quantum level), molecules, etc… obey predictable laws. Therefore, constructing models which predict the behavior of variables in these systems (where the variables themselves must follow predictable laws) is a much more appropriate approach than it is with social systems.

2.  We are asking the wrong questions. Often, the answer you get depends on the question you ask. This is the real difference between education and training.  Training focuses on the transmission of answers, i.e. knowledge, whereas education teaches people how to ask the right questions.  Social scientists are asking the wrong questions, which is to say studying sociocultural systems as if they were physical or chemical systems using reductionist, analytical, linear thinking.

For example, if you are doing any type of research you must state your independent and dependent variables. However, social systems are not composed of independent and dependent variables, and applying such a construct is doomed to fail. The construct asks the wrong question, i.e. “What are the cause and effect relationships?”, when in fact there are few cause and effect relationships in social systems because people have choices.

Social systems are composed of interdependent variables. Therefore, we cannot study one or two in isolation, but we must study the system as a whole to understand the interdependency of the variables and the emergent properties of the system.

3. Context is important in sociocultural systems. Classical science attempts to remove context from the equation in order to isolate the cause and effect relationships between variables. However, context is everything in a social system. To study a social system without context is to invite failure. Results of context-free experimentation will not be useful in the “real world” because context exerts a heavy influence on behavior.

I’m reminded of the “Pepsi Challenge” in which (in classical scientific reductionist analytical style) subjects were given a blind taste test of Coke and Pepsi. The majority of subjects preferred the taste of Pepsi.  Of course, Coke continued to dominate the market. Execs at Pepsi puzzled over how they could be losing market share if their product tasted better. The answer, of course, is that in real life people don’t drink soda without labels; in real life people drink from a bottle with Coke or Pepsi displayed prominently.

Subsequent studies discovered that when the subjects were given taste tests with product labels, i.e. they knew whether they were drinking Coke or Pepsi, they preferred Coke, not Pepsi. Furthermore (and this is the really fun part), researchers monitored the brain activity of these tests, and found that Coke actually produced increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain when subjects could see the label, whereas Pepsi produced more when the labels were concealed.

People didn’t just irrationally believe Coke tasted better. Seeing the label actually changed the activity level of the brain. To them, Coke really did taste better.

In short, sociocultural systems can’t be studied like physical or chemical systems, yet this is what we are doing. As long as we continue to do so, we are unlikely to have much success.

Whaling, Protestors, and Strategy Part II

September 16, 2010 9 comments

I received quite a response to the post on Whale Wars and the Sea Shepherd’s effectiveness.  I am going to attempt to answer all the comments, questions, and criticisms brought up by readers.

First things first: the corrections dept – or let’s call them updates.  In my original post I stated that the Bob Barker was unable to keep up with the Japanese whaling fleet.  In a later episode, the Seas Shepherds (SS) were able to tweak the engine enough to get some additional speed, and thereby keep up.  Second, it turns out Pete Bethune was not disowned after all – the SS simply told the Japanese judiciary that Bethune would no longer participate in SS operations.  After Bethune was released, the SSs indicated they had no intention of following through on that promise.  I’m not going to debate the idea of lying; deception is a viable strategy.

Now then, the most passionate opposition to my post came from David Comarow.  Here is a summarized list of his points (not including the updates listed previously):

  • The appearance of incompetence is largely a function of television editing, which shows the most compelling (not necessarily significant) moments.
  • The number of whales killed compared to the quota is a good measure of effectiveness
  • The SS have made millions of people aware of the horrors of whaling.
  • The tactics of the SS are setting the stage for a political solution
  • There is a growing mountain of [uneaten] whale meat in Japan.  (I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I presume this is an indicator that SS tactics are changing the minds of Japanese consumers about whale meat).

Thanks again David for the comments.  To begin to address these comments, let us first start by mapping the Japanese whaling ecosystem as it pertains to the SS and their strategy:


This is a simplified systems diagram for how the whole system functions.   It shows the multiple variables in the system and the effect they have on each other (increase or decrease, represented by the plus and minus signs).  What can this tell us about the best way to attack this system?

First of all, let’s consider the SS strategy; to make whale meat too expensive, causing a drop in demand and subsequent drop in profitability for the whalers.  You can see in the diagram the SS actions cause an increase in whale meat cost.  David contends they also cause a decrease in whale meat demand.  I can’t say if that is true, so I put ?? next to the +- indicator.  What the diagram allows us to see is that it is irrelevant! Why?  Because of the missing “invisible hand.”  In a normal economy price is coupled to supply and demand.  But not here (this is shown by the dotted arrow).  There are only two factors that affect the cost of the meat; SS actions and Japan Government subsidies, and the SS actions to increase the price are easily offset by the subsidies which decrease the price.  This is why the SS strategy can’t work. It doesn’t matter how expensive you make the meat – the cost is underwritten by government subsidies.

Now, lets take a look at the other two outputs from SS actions.

First, it increases Japanese support for whaling.  Importantly, this may or may not result in increased whale meat demand.  Why?  Because in Japan the SS are seen as terrorists.  Even if you don’t eat whale meat, that doesn’t mean you are going to ally yourself with a terrorist ideology.  This popular support translates to political support for government subsidies, which in turn regulate the price of whale meat, keeping it affordable.  You can follow the loop all the way around and see how the SS undermine their own strategy!

Second, it increases public awareness (outside Japan) and by extension, increases anti-whaling sentiment.  While there is no doubt that the show increases awareness and anti-whaling sentiment, it is a dead end.  The Japanese are a very homogenous, high context culture.  That means that they are very sensitive when it comes to “in” groups and “out” groups.  It also means they are sensitive to “losing face.”  For our purposes, it means that public sentiment outside Japan has little or no effect on Japanese sentiment (and by extension, political support) because foreigners are an “out” group.  In fact, the more you tell the Japanese what to do, the less likely they are to comply.

There is another show on Animal Planet now about a gentleman trying to stop the dolphin hunt.  In an interview he talks about how the Japanese will “have to” stop the hunt when the international pressure becomes to great.  It is tragic how culture-centric we are as westerners.  We think that everyone sees the world as we do and responds to stimulus as we do.  Remember the words of Sun Tzu: Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.

In any case, what does all this tell us about strategy?  In my view, it says that the key to the system, or the weak link if you will, is the government subsidies.  Without those, the whole system collapses.  Yet, the SS actions increase support for government subsidies.  This dynamic is not unique to SS.  We (humans) are programmed to think in linear, cause and effect terms.  But, the world is really more complex – more like a spaghetti bowl of inter-related variables.

Now that you see how I view the system, you can see why I reached the conclusions I did.  Going back to David’s points, let me answer them in turn:

  • The appearance of incompetence is largely a function of television editing.  Maybe so, but the resemblance of Watson and Hammarstedt to The Skipper and Gilligan is eerie, don’t you think?  Kidding aside, appearances are secondary to the strategy, which I still say is failing.
  • The number of whales killed compared to the quota is a good measure of effectiveness.  I guess we’ll just disagree on this.  I reiterate – you can say that the Japanese fell short of their quota, but what does that really mean?  If last year they took 100 whales out of a 100 whale quota, they took 100% of quota.  If this year, they took 100 whales out of a 200 quota, then they took 50% of their quota.  But really, is that a 50% decrease?  Or a 50% increase in SS effectiveness?  Watson is playing with numbers.  While that is good strategic communications (the message is “we are winning” because retired game show hosts don’t donate $5 million to a loser), but we shouldn’t confuse spin with actual effectiveness.
  • The SS have made millions of people aware of the horrors of whaling.  True, but I don’t think it matters as explained in the systems model.
  • The tactics of the SS are setting the stage for a political solution.  As long as the Japanese view SS as terrorists, this is like saying that 9/11 set the stage for political reconciliation in the Middle East – not really.
  • There is a growing mountain of [uneaten] whale meat in Japan.  Yet the price of whale meat remains unaffected.  I go back to the model – supply and demand is not regulating price, which is why the SS economic attack is bound to fail. I’d like to finish up this post by addressing the question from Shah, who asks if SS, or perhaps alternative strategies, would be effective to combat over-fishing by nations in their economic exclusionary zone (EEZ; waters from 0 to 200 miles off the coast of a sovereign state in which that state has exclusive rights to economic activity, such as fishing, oil drilling, etc…)The answer is, I don’t know.  My advice would be to first map the ecosystem as I have done above for the whaling economy in Japan, then find the weak spot where you can apply pressure.  The answer is likely to be different in each case because the politics, economics, and socio-cultural factors will all be different.  I go back to the basics of strategy – it is a balancing of strategic outcomes/goals (ends) with the ways (tactics/methods) and means (resources) to accomplish them.