Learning War in New York Times

Learning War_final.inddI mentioned that Learning War has been getting some good press in my last post. Since then, it has appeared in the New York Times Book Review. I was humbled to be honored along with a series of other new military history books on 11 November, the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I.

Tom Ricks wrote the review, and he noted that the “real hero” of my book is “not an individual but a large, complex organization, the American Navy, that quickly grew from second-rate status to become the world’s premier maritime force.” Exactly! Learning War charts the rise of the U.S. Navy over the course of the early twentieth century and attributes much of its success to the fact that it became a learning organization.

Ricks also included Learning War in his “5 New Military History Books Worth Reading” on Task & Purpose. Later in the week, he published an excerpt about mission command in his section, “The Long March.” The excerpt is from my chapter on the Navy’s “Interwar Learning System” and describes a heuristic that emerged between the two world wars. The Navy emphasized decentralized command and control and deliberately encouraged the individual initiative of subordinate officers so that it could make the most of momentary opportunities that might arise in battle. This not only led to better tactics, it also accelerated learning.

Ricks thinks it is useful advice for today’s U.S. Army. I’m inclined to agree. I even recommend it to civilian organizations; pushing decisions to the lowest levels allows them to be made faster and with less friction. The key is creating an environment where superiors can have confidence in their subordinates and trust their decisions. There’s no easy formula for that.

Recent Interviews and Podcasts

Interest in Learning War has been increasing lately and I’ve been fortunate to be in a series of podcasts and interviews.

Christopher Nelson conducted a very thorough interview for CIMSEC that drew out various aspects of the arguments in the book. I particularly liked his question about what I would do if I had ten minutes with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, who, it turns out, has become a fan of my work.

P. R. Beckman interviewed me for the Strategy Bridge Podcast. His questions were excellent and forced me to think on my feet quite a bit. I liked the emphasis he placed on professional military education (PME) and how modern concepts can be informed by past lessons, many of which I tried to capture and describe.

Have a look and I hope you enjoy!

Strategy from “Inherently Erroneous” Conceptions

Fear of InvasionA brief review of David G. Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I am very grateful for this book. David G. Morgan-Owen’s narrative provides much-needed clarity on one of the fundamental questions of World War I: How did the Royal Navy, the most dominant naval force of the day, come to adopt a passive strategy that ceded the initiative to their German opponents?

Morgan-Owen’s detailed analysis of strategic planning in the decades prior to the war provides a compelling answer. He does this by expanding the scope of the narrative, looking beyond the Royal Navy’s planning to consider its relationship with the British Army and the Government. What emerges is a pattern of decisions—each with a logical explanation in context—that gradually limited the Royal Navy’s freedom of action and left Admiral John R. Jellicoe in the unenviable position of being, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

Those words made sense to me over three decades ago when I first started looking into the naval history of World War I. They seemed to offer a useful explanation for Admiral Jellicoe’s defensive attitude in the war’s largest fleet action, the Battle of Jutland. As more recent scholarship emerged, however, I began to wonder. Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game was an important step because it introduced the idea that perhaps the Royal Navy was insufficiently well-prepared to exercise command in a modern naval war.1

My study of U.S. Navy doctrine and tactics in the interwar period (1919-1939) provided another useful perspective. Although historians have repeatedly accused the U.S. Navy of “refighting” Jutland, U.S. Navy officers examined the battle as a learning tool, drawing out valuable lessons about the principles of naval warfare.2 One of the ideas repeatedly stressed in their analyses was the importance of offensive action, to seize the initiative and keep the enemy off-balance. Today, we would describe this as getting inside your opponent’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop. In Learning War, I make the point that the U.S. Navy’s conception of the importance of the initiative expanded during the interwar period, so that it embraced not just the tactical level of warfare, but also the strategic. With this in mind, one U.S. officer described Jellicoe’s approach as “an inherently erroneous conception of naval warfare.”3 A rather damning critique which I’ve referenced in the title of this post.

I had that perspective in mind when I read Shawn T. Grimes’s Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918. Grimes challenges many established assumptions about the Royal Navy’s approach to war, providing a thorough analysis of exercises, strategic thinking, and conceptualizations about a potential war in the North Sea. I highly recommend it. Before reading his monograph, I hypothesized that—as strange as it might seem—perhaps the Royal Navy had not performed the kind of large-scale exercises necessary to adequately assess how to handle a modern fleet in battle. Reading Grimes, I realized my hypothesis was incorrect. Exercises were performed, and they seemed to provide a reasonably accurate assessment of modern technologies and their capabilities. I began to wonder if something prevented the Royal Navy from learning effectively from their exercises.

I had several questions. Why did men like Jellicoe adopt a defensive strategic posture? How did they maintain it in light of their material superiority? What led them to remain passive in the home theater while pursuing aggressive actions elsewhere around the globe? How did they expect the Royal Navy to help win the war?

Morgan-Owen provides a compelling history that answers these questions. British war planning is described in its full complexity; the Empire’s strategy emerges from the interaction of three linked—but largely independent—organizations, the British Army, the Imperial Navy, and the Government. Morgan-Owen eschews simplistic explanations like personal failings or shortcomings within a single organization’s planning process. Instead we are told that the “lack of a meaningful vision of how to prosecute a war against Germany” prevented alignment.4 There was no coherent overall strategy.

Instead, there were a series of lower-level decisions made by each of the three major organizations involved. The Army focused on creating a large expeditionary force, first for India, and then later for the Continent. The Government (and the public) became aware of the potential threat of a German surprise attack on England’s East Coast. The swift Prussian victory in 1870 prompted fears that a rapid movement across the North Sea could land unopposed and force a decision while the main strength of the British Army was away. The Royal Navy could not allow this to occur, so it focused on countering the threat.

Taken together, these cascading decisions—the brief description in the paragraph above is a gross simplification—provide a clear explanation for Jellicoe’s defensive stance. The outcome is remarkable in hindsight, because it meant that the inherent flexibility offered by naval power—which the British had used repeatedly to their advantage in the past—was subordinated to the employment of a large army. One could argue that the British, by focusing on a continental commitment, played to German strengths, which is something strategic planning should avoid. This outcome was obviously not clear to decision-makers at the time, and Morgan-Owen does an excellent job of explaining their perspectives, assumptions, and context to illustrate how undesirable consequences can result from the actions of well-intentioned individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in strategy, war planning, or naval history.


1. Gordon suggests that the Royal Navy’s dominant position through the nineteenth century led to ossified command structures that were insufficient for the demands of modern naval combat. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

2. David Kohnen argues that the U.S. Navy was the ultimate winner of Jutland. David Kohnen, “The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland”, Naval War College Review (Autumn 2016, Vol. 69, No. 4), 122-145.

3. Commander Holloway H. Frost, The Battle of Jutland (Annapolis, Md: U.S. Naval Institute, 1936), 517.

4. David G. Morgan-Owen, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017), 215.

On the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast

I’m excited to be on a recent episode of Vasco Duarte’s Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast along with Karl Scotland and Henrik Mårtesson. The three of us discussed strategy, doctrine, and decision-making in Agile and business contexts.

Karl has some wonderful tools and approaches for what he calls Strategy Deployment (conceptualizing and promulgating a plan throughout an organization). The X-Matrix is a way to visualize desired outcomes, strategic approaches, specific tactics, and processes. The format of the matrix allows them all to be related together. Along with his Backbriefing and Experimenting A3s, the X-Matrix forms a three-level hierarchy for synergistic planning. Karl waked me through this approach during a workshop at Lean Agile Scotland last year. He emphasized that while the tools are useful, the real value comes from the conversations they trigger.

I would agree with that assessment, which is why I stress the importance of the Naval War College’s “conference method” when I bring up the U.S. Navy’s historical tool for strategic decision-making, the Estimate of the Situation. The Estimate of the Situation was a well-defined process that—like Karl’s X-Matrix—walked participants through exploring options and formulating strategies. Unlike Karl’s three-level hierarchy, it was fractal, so any level of the organizational structure could use the Estimate. What made it really powerful was the conversations it triggered (hence the importance of conferences).

I’d never met Henrik before, but it was a pleasure to talk with him. He describes himself as a systems thinker who focuses on making companies more resilient and more fun. That really came though in our conversation and I was pleased to learn more about his perspective.

Check out the podcast to hear more about our discussion and the different themes we explored like John Boyd’s OODA Loop, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, and Steven Bungay’s The Art of Action.

Lean Agile Scotland – Designing the Future

Once again, Lean Agile Scotland was an excellent conference full of thought-provoking ideas and stimulating conversations. It was a pleasure to attend and speak at the event. I gained numerous insights; here are some of the most interesting.

Design or Lean Agile?

At the start of the second day, Cameron Tonkinwise challenged the audience with his keynote by contrasting Agile methods with the process of “design.” Although his familiarity with Agile in the workplace is limited, Cameron has a deep knowledge of design and its philosophical underpinnings. For him, design is a creative process that, by integrating ideation, prejudgment, and early evaluation, supports innovative leaps.

Cameron argued that Agile, because of its emphasis on rapid iteration and trial-and-error, is incapable of similar innovation. Instead, Agile focuses on incremental improvements which generate a lot of waste. Teams build more and more “stuff” and they discover what value is, not from conceptualization and reasoning, but by testing it with users in the real world. As many of us have learned, this can be very wasteful.

It was a powerful critique, but it didn’t stop there. Cameron argued that Agile promotes the “corrosive cynicism of empiricism” by assuming that mental models and expert judgments are irrelevant. Instead, reality is defined by what we learn from new software deployments and how they change the behavior of users. I was stunned by how well his argument resonated with me; I have become concerned by the declining importance of expert knowledge, but I never conflated that trend with Agile practices.

Cameron Tonkinwise explored the difference between Lean, Agile, and Design.

Cameron Tonkinwise explored the difference between Lean, Agile, and Design.

If we believe expert judgement has value, how do we leverage it in our software development processes? What can we do to address the problem? Cameron recommended changing our metaphors; we need to emphasize experimentation and exploration over testing and iterating. He encouraged us to create discourse with users and involve them in co-creating the future. These are powerful, tangible suggestions. I was very pleased with them as they reflect what I’ve come to believe after many years in the industry, but have never expressed so eloquently. They’re also what we’re trying to do.

Strategy Deployment, Scaling, and Doctrine

Karl Scotland ran a very effective workshop introducing his approach to Strategy Deployment, which he described as collective sense-making. He walked through three interrelated tools: the X-Matrix, which frames aspirations, strategies, tactics, and evidence; the Backbriefing A3, which is used for developing specific operational plans; and the Experiment A3, which defines low-level tactical improvements. All these formats are available as templates on his website and it was exciting to see them in action. The great value they bring is the structured conversations they foster, a point that Karl effectively demonstrated in his workshop.

Karl Scotland deployed his strategy.

Cat Swetel built on these ideas. She described how she used Strategy Deployment to help an organization devise a custom scaling approach. It integrated development and operations, reflected the organization’s specific context, and allowed much more effective performance. Cat effectively explained how Strategy Deployment can work in the real-world and also gave us a fresh look at scaling in context.

Cat Swetel linked strategy, operations, and tactics.

I tried to do something similar in my presentation on Strategy and Doctrine. I argued that the two are synergistic; effective strategies can lead to new and better doctrines, while better doctrines can permit more effective strategies. Therefore, an evolutionary approach is required for each, so that they can change in light of new opportunities and changing circumstances.

Designing Organizations

The evening of the second day, there was a panel discussion involving several of the speakers. The topic was “organizational design” and it explored many different concepts. Esko Kilpi noted that our approach to organizational design has become too reductionist and insufficiently conscious of context. He feels that we need to place more value on connections and networks, the “in between” that is too often ignored. Cameron argued that one of the merits of an organization is the separation it creates. We can view our membership in an organization as separate from who we are as a person and “do work” without “disappearing into work,” a very valuable point. Alex Harms, Sal Freudenberg, and Mike Sutton riffed off of this exchange, adding their own ideas while Jabe Bloom facilitated. I found it all quite valuable. Everyone seemed to agree that organizations should have an “intent” and that those who assume responsibility for their design need to be deliberate about what that intent is and how it is created. What is the organization’s purpose?

Greg Brougham explained how to design a complex organization.

The next day, Greg Brougham built on these ideas. He discussed two examples of successful organizational design using a clear sense of purpose and sensitivity to context. He framed these as examples of emergent complexity. Each was triggered by the deliberate introduction of constraints, boundaries within which the members of the organization self-organized. Some specific examples of constraints were delivering to the customer every two months, focusing on value, and structured approaches to problem-solving. These harnessed the creativity of individuals without dictating solutions, allowing effective complex structures to evolve from initially simple ones. It was very similar to what I had said about evolutionary approaches to Strategy and Doctrine: constraints are the secret sauce that foster self-organization.

I was very grateful to be able to attend Lean Agile Scotland, sit in on these sessions, and have a series of conversations with the speakers. It was a wonderful conference; I cannot wait until next year!

What is Doctrine Anyway?

BB_LineLater this year, I’ll be sharing the stage at SDI Miami with Stephen Bungay, whose book, “The Art of Action,” has been influential in the Agile community. He’ll be continuing to expand on his thesis—that the Prussian General Staff identified an effective approach to organizing for collective action in the face of uncertainty—and presenting on “Blitzkrieg: Lessons in Organizational Agility & Strategy.” I’m looking forward to seeing how he relates the success of the German Army in the early years of World War II to the management challenges of today.

I plan to do something similar, but with a less familiar example. I’ll be highlighting the importance of rapid organizational learning by discussing the Allied offensive at Guadalcanal in late 1942. The series of naval battles triggered by that offensive led to revisions in the U.S. Navy’s doctrine—its approach to combat. Whereas Bungay will discuss the merits of the German Army’s doctrine, I’ll be presenting the importance of developing doctrinal agility: the ability to rapidly refine, adapt, and evolve doctrine.

So what is Doctrine?

In my forthcoming book on organizational learning in the U.S. Navy, I define doctrine this way:

Doctrine is the set of implicit and explicit assumptions that govern the behavior of a military force. It is what officers and sailors fall back on to guide their decisions when precise instructions are not available. It has a parallel to “culture” or “ethos” but greater specificity than either one.

Bungay (and many others) contend that the German Army’s doctrine was particularly effective because it created a common sense of what to do and how to do it, allowing large collections of individual soldiers to act in concert with minimal need for explicit instructions. I contend that the U.S. Navy’s doctrine was effective because it retained the ability to evolve and change in the face of new information. These are related concepts, but the difference is important.

Why Should I Care about Doctrine?

Whether we are aware of the process or not, doctrine influences how we make decisions. We’ve all experienced the influence of doctrine in our work. Some organizations tend to centralize decisions, perhaps in the hands of a senior engineer or manager. Those who fail to defer to them are stigmatized or punished, quickly creating a doctrine of centralized decision-making. Other organizations attempt to empower teams with the ability to collaboratively make decisions. When leaders—managers, senior engineers, scrum masters, etc.—reinforce this concept, the doctrine of empowered teams spreads. Many more examples exist. In most cases, organizational doctrines are implicit, but they exert a powerful influence.

Military forces explicitly create a doctrine based on their preferred approach. Drill, exercise, and repetition creates patterns—what Daniel Kahneman calls “heuristics”—that become the preferred approach to solving specific problems. There are two challenges in this. First, the heuristics must align with the organization’s goals and objectives. Second, the heuristics must not be so deeply embedded that they cannot change. The U.S. Navy was particularly adept at both seventy-five years ago.

Come to SDI Miami and I’ll explain why this was so, and what the implications are for modern organizations.

Looking Forward to Lean Kanban North America

This post first appeared on Excella Consulting’s Blog.

Next month I’ll be speaking at Lean Kanban North America. The last time I attended, in 2015, I was a finalist for the Brickell Key Award. I had been helping distributed teams align their work and increase their situational awareness by using Kanban. Jim Benson and I spoke about the positive aspects of that experience, but we spent more time on Kanban’s dark side. We argued it could become an oubliette—a claustrophobic dungeon—in certain circumstances. If you’re interested, you can see the video here. I really enjoyed the experience, and I’m excited to go back.

Kanban for your Brain

This year, I’m going to be focusing on something slightly different. One my favorite things about Kanban is the subtle shifts it triggers in our minds. It’s a huge relief for me when I can get things I need to do out of my head and onto my Personal Kanban. Once they’re there, I don’t have to focus on remembering them, and seeing them set out as a collection of options—work I can start when I feel it’s best—gives me an increased sense of control. I’ve seen the same thing happen for my daughter when she uses Kanban to help make sense of her homework.

Kanban offloads mental processing and reduces our cognitive burden. With a team, this dynamic becomes even more profound. A team Kanban becomes a shared view of their work. At the most basic level, this reduces everyone’s cognitive load, just like my Personal Kanban does for me. But effective Kanban systems will do much more than that. They will become a system of distributed cognition.

Kanban and Distributed Cognition

Distributed cognition doesn’t mean a distributed team. Distributed in this sense means that there is a broad cognitive—or sense-making—activity taking place that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The interaction of the team and their board creates the potential for more effective and more rapid decision-making. This is especially true if the team has invested in customizing their board to incorporate details like classes of service, specific types of work, and defined capacity allocations. The increased amount of information allows the board to become a decision-support system. Everyone working with it knows what choices to make and what conversations to trigger. When a team gets to this level, it’s electrifying!

Historical Parallels

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. My favorite historical example is from the U.S. Navy’s experience in early World War II. During the confused night battles in the Solomon Island chain, task force commanders and ship captains couldn’t make sense of the situation around them. They had access to revolutionary new sources of information, like radar and very-high frequency radios, but there was no way to effectively understand all the details they provided.

The U.S. Navy had to create a system like Kanban, one that could model the current situation with meaningful symbols, offload the cognitive burden, and help align decision-making. Once that was in place, ship captains had much greater situational awareness. They began to operate as a team and collaborated more effectively. The results were revolutionary.

A good Kanban system will help your team in the same way. Come to Lean Kanban North America and I’ll explain how.