By John Boyd
This is another post in my series on John Boyd's briefings.
Organic Design for Command and Control
To put this slide deck in the context of Boyd's other briefings, here's the scheme he outlined on Slide 30 of The Strategic Game of ? and ?:
With that in mind, let's delve into Organic Design. The briefing recounts then-recent failures in military exercises and conflicts and notes that the US military's solutions have tended to involve larger, more centralized command and control (C&C). Yet, Boyd argues, "I think there is a different way—a way that emphasizes the implicit nature of human beings. In this sense, the following discussion will uncover what we mean by both implicit nature and organic design" (Slide 2). This way, he says, involves insight and vision; focus and direction; adaptability; and security (Slide 3):
- “Organic Design for Command and Control” (C&C) emphasizes interaction.
- “Patterns of Conflict” (POC) emphasize isolation.
- “Destruction and Creation” (D&C) is balanced between interaction and isolation.
• Why insight and vision?Based on our prior readings, we can see that he is indeed emphasizing interaction here—how an entity can interact internally, with allies, and with the environment. Per usual, Boyd undertakes a quick historical survey to set up his argument (Slides 5-7), then concludes:
Without insight and vision there can be no orientation to deal with both present and future.
• Why focus and direction?
Without focus and direction, implied or explicit, there can be neither harmony of effort nor initiative for vigorous effort.
• Why adaptability?
Adaptability implies variety and rapidity. Without variety and rapidity one can neither be unpredictable nor cope with changing and unforeseen circumstances.
• Why security?
Without security one becomes predictable, hence one loses the benefits of the above. (Slide 4, his emphasis)
• Variety/rapidity without harmony/initiative lead to confusion, disorder and ultimately to chaos.Thus our goal in this briefing is to "uncover those interactions that foster harmony and initiative—yet do not destroy variety and rapidity" (Slide 9). Boyd lists a large number of activities and linkages on the next slide, categorized into positive and negative aspects (Slide 10), then crystallizes this insight:on the other hand• Harmony/initiative without variety/rapidity lead to (rigid) uniformity, predictability and ultimately to non-adaptability. (Slide 9)
Interactions, as shown, represent a many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection. (Slide 11, his emphasis)He argues that this insight hinges on orientation, which he defines in this way:
Orientation, seen as a result, represents images, views, or impressions of the world shaped by genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances. (Slide 13, his emphasis)Orientation, he continues, is the Schwerpunkt or center of gravity: since it shapes how we interact with the environment, it shapes the rest of the OODA loop in present interactions, and that loop itself shapes future actions. Thus our orientations must match "the activity of the world" while we deny our adversaries the same opportunity (Slide 16).
One consequence of this insight, he says, is that we should "Expose individuals, with different skills and abilities, against a variety of situations—whereby each individual can observe and orient himself simultaneously to the others and to the variety of changing situations." The consequence, he believes, is that "In such an environment, a harmony, or focus and direction, in operations is created by the bonds of implicit communications and trust that evolve as a consequence of the similar mental images or impressions each individual creates and commits to memory by repeatedly sharing the same variety of experiences in the same ways" (Slide 18). I think he's saying that these individuals are being exposed to these situations along with their teams. The teams share each experience and their collective reactions to these experiences, and in doing so, develop a consensual, implicit understanding of each experience. They synchronize their orientation implicitly rather than explicitly (a big theme in Patterns of Conflict as well). The payoff, he says, is
A command and control system, whose secret lies in what’s unstated or not communicated to one another (in an explicit sense)—in order to exploit lower-level initiative yet realize higher-level intent, thereby diminish friction and compress time, hence gain both quickness and security. (Slide 18)That is, if a team had had to inductively and consensually build up orientations to a variety of situations, they develop implicit assumptions that allow them to quickly act with initiative. This makes sense to me as far as it goes—but such a team may build up implicit assumptions that can then be exploited. Boyd does not discuss this question, probably because the greater danger is that of a centralized (and more easily exploited) C&C that squelches lower-level initiative. Boyd says:
Now, let us assume, for whatever reason or combination of circumstances, that we design a command and control system that hinders interaction with external environment. This implies a focus inward, rather than outward. (Slide 20)Such a system is potentially disastrous:
He who can generate many non-cooperative centers of gravity magnifies friction. Why? Many non-cooperative centers of gravity within a system restrict interaction and adaptability of system with its surroundings, thereby leading to a focus inward (i.e., within itself), which in turn generates confusion and disorder, which impedes vigorous or directed activity, hence, by definition, magnifies friction or entropy. (Slide 20)Such a system encourages adherents to look inward rather than outward, and the result is disintegration. "Without implicit bonds or connections, we magnify friction, produce paralysis, and get system collapse" (Slide 21). So "The key idea is to emphasize implicit over explicit in order to gain a favorable mismatch in friction and time (i.e, ours lower than any adversary) for superiority in shaping and adapting to circumstances" (Slide 22).
Side note here: I've been drawing connections between Ilyenkov and Boyd in my commentary on previous briefings. One thing that they have in common is that they recognize that activities (I'll play fast and loose here in drawing a rough equivalence between an activity and an OODA loop) may contradict each other, but they disintegrate because of internal contradictions. But I think they part ways here in that Ilyenkov is chiefly interested in those internal contradictions and sees external ones as nudging them rather than playing a central role. Boyd is saying that without continual interaction with the environment, the system will collapse—that is, the system's internal contradictions/instabilities can be addressed only through interactions with the environment.
Let's apply this question analogically back to activity theory: rather than seeing interactions among activities as destabilizing, we can see them as potentially stabilizing and actually necessary for maintaining internal stability. This gives us a different view of third-generation activity theory (3GAT), which expanded AT to address networks of activity systems: perhaps it is only with this next turn that we can account for the dynamic stability of individual activities? The idea intrigues me, partly because (as I never tire of telling my students) I see every stable activity as a remarkable achievement!
Back to the briefing. Boyd argues that we should avoid building up explicit internal arrangements, instead making sure "that leaders and subordinates alike are given opportunity to continuously interact with external world, and with each other" so that they can generate a consensual implicit orientation. Doing so should reduce friction and time; thus allow them to exploit variety while maintaining harmony/initiative; thus get inside adversaries OODA loops; thus magnify the adversary's friction; thus "Deny adversary the opportunity to cope with events/efforts as they unfold" (Slide 23).
Operating within the OODA loop means operating in the C&C loop, he says (Slide 26). But, Boyd asks, how can we get effective command and control (Slide 27)? He reviews some historical snapshots (Slides 28-29). Based on these, he concludes that
• Command must give direction in terms of what is to be done in a clear unambiguous way. In this sense, command must interact with system to shape the character or nature of that system in order to realize what is to be done;Boyd notes that this arrangement sounds more like leadership and monitoring than what we have traditionally termed command and control (Slide 32). He acknowledges that in this light, a better title for the presentation would be "Appreciation and leadership" (Slide 36). And with that and a slide for definitions, the presentation is over.whereas• Control must provide assessment of what is being done also in a clear unambiguous way. In this sense, control must not interact nor interfere with system but must ascertain (not shape) the character/nature of what is being done. (Slide 31; see also Atkinson and Moffat)
What can we take from this briefing? As I discussed last time in my review of Strategic Game, I was concerned that the OODA loop relied on an underdefined set of assumptions about each stage. Out of an infinite set of possibilities, how does one select ways to select, process, and act on information, particularly in ways that are fast enough to get inside an adversary's OODA loop? In most activities, I argued, we develop paradigms, methodologies, methods, and techniques that work often enough to get through the day. These become routine and invisible enough that we forget they represent decisions, and thus we have trouble thinking outside of them. Who is tasked with making those decisions? Who is tasked with evaluating and rethinking them?
In a complex, high-stakes activity—for instance, warfare—we tend to assign those tasks to high-ranking people who have gathered a wealth of experience. Yet (a) drawing on a wealth of experience often entails fighting the last battle rather than rethinking the problem based on the facts on the ground; and (b) pushing decisions up the chain means that decisions can be excruciatingly slow to make.
Yet Boyd's alternative poses problems as well, particularly in a volunteer army—the people on whose expertise you rely may not be involved in the team long enough to develop sufficiently consensual implicit orientation. It's hard to trust someone to know what you mean when they just joined up. Similarly, we might expect drift in implicit knowledge across units unless there's a way to continually and systematically synch implicit expectations across units. Perhaps this is what Boyd is trying to address with "clear and unambiguous assessment," but he isn't clear on how broadly scoped the assessment is.
So, as with the previous briefing, I am not clear about the scale at which Boyd proposes to apply the advice. I don't know that it can easily scale, and Boyd has not elaborated enough on mechanisms that would allow it to do so.
But if we apply the advice to activity theory, we do come up with some intriguing collisions. I mentioned one of these earlier in the review: that perhaps activities can be stabilized only through interactions with other activities. Another might be the question of implicit vs explicit rules and division of labor, applied to different kinds of objects.
Again, if you're interested in strategy or if you're just interested in an eclectic take on interactionism, check this briefing out. It's only a total of 40 slides, so it's a quick read.