Out of the box thinking versus pliable biases

I recently was having a discussion with a noted scholar of conflict and I said “throwing history under the bus”  meaning lets look at this thing as a new thing. My goal was to get out of the box of constructed knowledge and examine things freshly and challenge the assumptions. A problem had been created (in my opinion) that was formed by the current and previous thinking. I never really considered thinking outside the box as especially troubling. The discussion though took a natural bend when the noted scholar said “Well expert so and so in this highly regarded article said…” I’ve got a fairly negative reaction to that.

First, my response was already stated as “let’s not get in a debate of the literature” because academics love to do that kind of stuff. I was looking to address the currency of the problem and examine NEW aspects of the problem or unconsidered aspects of the issue. Second, whenever you appeal to the literature to support or sustain a point it is a logical fallacy of argument from authority. In the counterinsurgency literature I have been seeing a lot of this type of literature mining the last couple years. Articles have entered the phase of cyclic distress when dealing with counterinsurgency. They are long literature reviews pitting authors against historical precedent or current practice. No place is this more so than the aficionados of John Boyd and his model.  Expand, break, argue the tenets, and then recycle through it all again. It is tiring and I like John Boyds model.

The failure of authors to get out of the chess game of literature reviews is a sign of a discipline with no data. I was very excited when a couple young authors started applying network node theory to analyze attack and repression in Afghanistan. Unfortunately they appear to have gotten tired of winnowing data from the headlines.

Get this. There is nothing wrong with writing a literature review. It is one level above a book review. I’ve written them. Many young scholars will write them, but they are not science and they should never be used for policy. The examination of historical precedent as a means of balancing a current practice has only limited service. While the historians fall on the floor apoplectic, I know those who don’t learn from history, are then doomed to repeat it. Well, damn if your only argument is a cliché’ no wonder nobody likes your classes.

The counterinsurgency literature must contain current day practices and examinations of the day in a scientifically valid way. I’ve been reading counterinsurgency literature for 20 years and all of the “great” books on all of the reading lists really don’t tell you anything new. I’m not the first person to make this point and I’ll surely not be the last. I definitely am not impressed by literature review articles playing chess with the current day events and yesterdays authors. There are other just as egregious violations for sure., but putting out historical examinations of this type simply do not rise to the level of out of the box thinking or scientific analysis. Now to be fair none of these people are likely thinking of their writing in either of these contexts.

Why do we care about the difference between out of the box thinking and pliable biases? First, lets look at what is strategic thinking from outside the box. We’re not going to talk about ways and means we’re going to simply examine some aspects that we might later apply in other contexts. So, we’ll have a list of “rules” for defining strategic thinking:


1)   Strategic thinking should be domain neutral. It is an operational art if it can only be done in a single domain. Strategy is domain agnostic, but strategic leadership requires domain expertise.

2)   Strategic thinking is the art of systemic analysis and consideration of cause-effect within a specific domain as regards large organizational entities.

3)   Strategic thinking is about analyzing the operational specifics and how they will impact organizational goals.

4)   Strategic thinking  is accomplished by understanding the impacts of resource allocation in the context of goals.


You might not agree with my statements but put them into the context that we’ve thrown all of the standard conflict thought under the bus and we’re analyzing anew. If it still really pisses you off this is a blog entry, ignore it and go your own way. I don’t argue with idiots on the Internet.

Within the context of cyber conflict a large amount of resources is applied to the tactical elements without consideration to operational art or strategic thinking. Part of this is driven by the pseudo religious techno culture of the network centric environment. You can find within that environmental variable the seeds to a lot of issues in why cyber strategy has not matured.

Before we smash up strategic thinking to strategic leadership it might be important to think about the various issues. As an example, if strategic thinking is cross domain can a strategic thinking be moved between domains? Chi, Glaser and other empiricists would point out the flaw of the chess master as army strategist. The knowledge does not transfer as tested and evaluated. Besides, the second part of our rule says that strategic thinking is going to require domain expertise. It is the concepts that can be moved between domains not the actual skills. Orson Scott Card’s Ender was a fantasy not the reality. Domain expertise is required. This is one of the reasons why MBAs can’t manage information technology no matter how much they cook the books saying they can.

The element of system analysis is important. Domain expertise will allow for higher level thinking that is contextually relevant to the domain. Systems have specific characteristics that can be expressed in a variety of ways. Similarly understanding how operations impact the organization is important. This is the feedback loop that informs the strategist on how well directions are being followed.

Once a resource has been allocated the clear and full understanding of that allocation in the domain context is required. Just finding the resource would be an operational characters tic, but understanding the domain impacts will inform the strategists.

One of the impacts of this model is that it informs why certain strategic leadership positions may not be effective. Another element of this is the ability to measure several of the characteristics.


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