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.

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.

Learning War is Coming!

I haven’t written here in some time, but I have been doing plenty of writing. My book on organizational learning in the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century is being published by the U.S. Naval Institute this June and I’m very excited about it.

What’s it About?

Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 is an analysis of the development of the U.S. Navy’s approach to surface warfare—how it planned to fight a fleet action with battleships and supporting vessels—between the Spanish-American War and the end of World War II. In my analysis, I treat the U.S. Navy as a complex adaptive system and use concepts from that discipline, like enabling constraints and emergence, to illustrate why it was so effective at rapidly learning and consistently innovating. The first half of the twentieth century was a period of rapid technological change; it saw the introduction of new platforms—like destroyers, dreadnought battleships, and airplanes—and new technologies—like mechanical fire control computers, radio, radar, and turbine propulsion. The U.S. Navy was particularly effective at integrating all of these into its force structure and tactics.

How Does it Relate to Today?

Although today’s contexts and technologies are different, I believe the basic concepts that underpinned the U.S. Navy’s approach to learning and innovation are still relevant. I’ve used many of them effectively in my work with software teams; these include creating an environment of psychological safety, leveraging variability to rapidly explore new techniques and methods, and fostering decentralized decision-making to seize fleeting opportunities. In the book, I explain how these approaches developed and evolved in the U.S. Navy’s context. A core theme is the importance of continually revising approaches to ensure they remain relevant, something that the Agile community is wrestling with right now.

It will be great to see Learning War in print. I think my work is done. I’ve finalized the draft; I’ve been through page proofs and made corrections; I’ve edited the index; and I’ve gotten some very positive early feedback from historians I deeply respect. It’s been an amazing journey. If you’re interested, you can find the book on the U.S. Naval Institute’s Website, Amazon, or other booksellers.
Learning War_final.indd

Strategic Limitations of the German General Staff

It has become common for those who study business organizations to embrace military analogies and military models when they think about strategy and organizational complexity.1 This is a good thing; cross-disciplinary approaches can offer new perspectives and help seed new ideas. However, limited knowledge of the subject matter can lead to overly optimistic interpretations of historical examples and restrict our ability to learn from them. This is particularly true in the case of the German General Staff (GGS) in general and Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) in particular.

Moltke is considered one of the greatest military minds of the nineteenth century. He was appointed chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857 and led the Prussian Army through the wars of German Unification, including victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71). Those who believe in flexibility, learning, and adaptability in the face of uncertainty find appeal in his famous quote about the nature of war: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”2

Moltke built the Prussian Army—and later the German one—on this assumption about the nature of war. Rather than issuing detailed instructions, Moltke stressed adaptability and flexibility. Officers were given high-level objectives and guidance. They were expected to develop specific plans based on the circumstances of the moment, without consulting higher headquarters for approval. This allowed Moltke’s armies to shorten their decision cycle. In modern business terms, Moltke’s armies lowered the cost of decisions by placing authority to make those decisions at lower levels. They got inside the “decision cycle” of their opponents.

There are extremely salient lessons to be gained from this experience. Distributing decision-making more broadly throughout the organization is an effective reaction to increased complexity and uncertainty. Education, training, and practice will give better results in the field of knowledge work than detailed instructions that become obsolete at the first unanticipated circumstance. However, if we consider this one aspect of Moltke’s approach worth emulating, we must also be conscious of his limitations.

The most effective critique of the GGS and its approach springs from another Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, and his famous dictum, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”3 This concept has been interpreted numerous ways, but there is no escaping its fundamental essence, and that is that nations (and would-be-nations4) wage war to achieve political ends.

Moltke would have agreed with this, and the political objective of his famous victories is readily apparent from their name, the “Wars of German Unification.” It is unfortunate that in our praise for Moltke, the essential political side of these wars is often forgotten. The political side was dominated by the Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck. Without Bismarck’s skill and acumen, it is unlikely that Moltke’s battlefield victories would have achieved lasting fame.

This is primarily because Moltke’s battlefield emphasis was the encirclement and destruction of the opposing army. Moltke focused on crafting the quintessential military victory: the annihilation of the enemy forces. The approach worked for two reasons. First, the era of total war, where nations mobilized their entire economies in pursuit of victory, had not yet come. Military victory could, in such an environment, deliver political victory. Second, the circumstances that allowed the Prussian state to achieve battlefield success—the delicate management of alliances, the choice of the right moment in time, and the selection of willing allies—had been put in place by the diligent Bismarck. His deft hand provided the context for Moltke’s triumphs.

The necessity of an effective interplay between military and political spheres is illustrated by what happened after Moltke and Bismarck retired. Moltke left the GGS in 1888; Bismarck retired in 1890. The delicate balance of alliances Bismarck had brokered for Germany’s benefit fell apart. France and Russia, long potential enemies, entered into an Alliance in 1892. This left Germany in a difficult strategic position, with powerful opponents to the east and the west.

This challenge required a balance of political and military thinking, but the voids left by Moltke and Bismarck were filled by less-capable individuals. By the time of the time of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Alfred von Schlieffen had assumed leadership of the GGS. Schlieffen was not a politically astute individual; he had less influence over other governmental departments than Moltke. Rather than seeking to collaboratively develop a solution to Germany’s strategic dilemma, Schlieffen, “responded to this challenge… by focusing inward on areas he could control and influence.”5 The result was a purely military solution to Germany’s strategic problem, the infamous Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan was a reckless attempt to use military means to achieve political ends while ignoring the political consequences of those means. Schlieffen—and his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke (cousin of the elder Moltke)—embraced the approach of the elder Moltke and placed an emphasis on quick battlefield victories. They expected to defeat France with a huge flanking movement that would enter northern France through neutral Belgium. Germany’s eastern border would be secured by a small force; Russia’s mobilization was expected to be slow and cumbersome. The delay would allow the bulk of the German Army to defeat France before turning eastward and defeating Russia. As the world witnessed in the fall of 1914, it didn’t work.

There were numerous flaws in the plan; two were crucial. First, the violation of Belgian neutrality made Germany a global pariah and brought Great Britain into the war on the side of France and Russia. While there is some question as to whether Britain would have interceded anyway, the military plan guaranteed this political result. Second, the plan assumed that swift military victories were still possible in an era of national mobilization. This was no longer the case. The elder Moltke and the General Staff had gotten evidence of this in the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian War, when new French armies appeared after the initial German triumphs. Schlieffen and the younger Moltke both had sufficient evidence to anticipate these flaws. That they did not is a weighty indictment of the approach of the GGS, and through it, the legacy of the elder Moltke.

When we praise Moltke for developing a potent framework for overcoming uncertainty and developing high performance on the dynamic environment of the battlefield, we praise his work within the German Army. But it is essential to remember that Moltke’s framework was successful because of the political circumstances Bismarck brokered. The two of them, along with a broader supporting cast, created the system in which Moltke’s battlefield triumphs brought political success. Without that broader system, Moltke’s work—while impressive—does not guarantee victory. The example of Germany’s performance in World War One proves that point.

What lessons then should the modern student take from Moltke? His system of decentralized decision-making is laudable, certainly, and has been a model of effective military leadership for over a century. However, if we adopt such an approach, we need to ensure that the end goals remain at the forefront. Too often, like Schlieffen, we seek to optimize the work within the spheres we can control, and ignore the challenges outside of them.

The end goal for the GGS should have been political victory for Germany. Instead, it became victory on the battlefield. The two were not the same thing. A more modern example would be a software team that makes its end goal the creation of features, and ignores the process of validating that those features are ones that will solve their customers’ business problems. Moltke was like a software manager, who, having developed an effective rapport with his peers, focused on optimizing the work of his software team. After his departure, his successors continued to optimize and refine their work, but lost the rapport, and in the process, lost the system that allowed their work to be valuable. This is the great lesson we should take from the elder Moltke.

Further Reading:

German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, Robert T. Foley, (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

The Principles of Product Development Flow, Donald G. Reinertsen, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009)

On War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning, Arden Bucholz, (Berg Publishers, 1993)

The Marne, 1914, Holger H. Herwig, (Random House, 2009)

The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision-Making and the Disasters of 1914, Jack Snyder, (Cornell University Press, 1984)


1. Perhaps the most effective example of this is Don Reinertsen’s The Principles of Product Development Flow, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009). See Chapter 9, p. 243-266

2. Moltke’s Wikipedia entry is a good starting point to learn more.

3. Clausewitz Wikipedia entryOn War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

4. It is useful to think of the terrorist network of Al Qaeda and its affiliates this way.

5. Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 64