Archive for the 'The Column' Category

To impart flexibility, teach chaos

16 August 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 14 August 2017 issue)

Kam,
I want my staff to be flexible and adaptable. I make the effort to write lots of memos and to lecture them every week about being flexible before I go off to play golf at 10am sharp. But they refuse to learn. I think they’re not very interested in their work. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to tee off.
Disgruntled General

I never ever want to be involved in a war but I do think it is possible to learn a lot from how people conduct war. Everything is at risk in a war and it’s interesting to see how people muster their resources and focus their intentions in a time of chaos.

I discovered something recently that changes everything I thought was true. During the Second World War, the German military swept through Europe with a style of warfare called Blitzkrieg, or lightning war. In the end, they lost the war, but for a while, they successfully used tanks, aircraft, paratroopers and mechanised infantry to crush almost all their opponents who used these elements as separate entities, if they had them at all. It took the Germans just six weeks to beat the French and British in 1940 — the British were just able to save their army from the beaches of Dunkirk.

But I discovered recently that the Germans never called it Blitzkrieg. The term was basically invented by an American newspaper because it sounded sexy. If the Germans had a term for their technique, it was Bewegungskrieg (mobile warfare) and Auftragstaktik (mission-type tactics), which do not sound so sexy. When senior officers of the German army (Wehrmacht) did occasionally write about Blitzkrieg, they would put it in inverted commas as the “so-called Blitzkrieg”. This is because the Wehrmacht did not like the use of what they considered to be buzzwords. They worried that in the chaos of battle, young soldiers would simply try to carry out the buzzwords they had been told in traiing even if the situation did not warrant it. With Bewegungskrieg, the Werhmacht wanted senior officers to quickly adapt to a new situation and use all the various elments in their arsenal. With Auftragstaktik, the more junior officers were given a simple objective and then the flexibility to do it as they thought best. They were told to “take that hill”. How they did it was up to them.

War movies have given us the impression that the German soldiers had the fortunate habit of running into machine guns that never seem to run out of bullets. It’s as if their training taught them that they actually had to touch Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt’s tank in order to win the war. The movies have shown us that German soldiers were robot-like, stiff and inflexible. This might tell us more about the cultures that make the movies than about the objects of their derision. Actually, German society was highly urbanised and educated (our schooling system was basically a German invention) and their army was surprisingly informal. The corporals and sergeants were generally older and given more tactical responsibility than their American or British counterparts. The key to their tactical battlefield success was flexibility and adaptability. The reason for their ultimate failure was their disgusting strategic vision, which gave them licence to be such brutal occupiers Hitler invaded Russia because his strategic vision was to exterminate all the Jews and the Slavs. That was a stupid as well as disgustingly racist reason for going to war. The Wehrmacht happily joined in because fighting wars was their reason for being. If you have a resource (like an excellent army), then it’s tempting to use it even if the better course would be to not.

Meanwhile, the British had a different war. I have not watched the movie Dunkirk, but I’m sure it’s moving and heroic. It was made long before the self-inflicted defeat of Brexit but it probably helps reinforce the British myth-making of the plucky underdog finding moral victory in a military defeat (or a penalty shoot-out). Christopher Nolan could have made a movie called Malaya, but I don’t think he would have got funding to film that abject disaster. The British had many military defeats during the war but they were on the winning side in the end. There are many reasons for their ultimate victory (being on the same side as the Soviet Union and the US helps a lot), but one important reason is that the British managed to muster their meagre resources better than the Germans and in unglamorous ways, like aircraft engines.

Before the war, Rolls-Royce invented the truly excellent Merlin engine. It was a feat of engineering and so, during the war, British and Canadian factories made nothing but the Merlin engine. One was put into the Spitfire, two into the Mosquito and four into the Lancaster bomber. It was even put into tanks. The Germans produced many splendidly engineered aircraft and tanks, but they were often overly complicated. All had different engines, which was a waste of valuable resources. The British had one good engine and that was all their women factory workers produced (the Germans often used slave labour because they did not wish to mobilise women into the war effort). Endlessly reusing the Merlin engine was a neat solution to a difficult situation.

In life and in work, it is essential to be flexible and adaptable. Events can change at any moment and you must be able to adapt. So, you post stickers on your desk that say, “Be Flexible” and “Be Adaptable”. But it can become an inflexible mantra or a set of meaningless uzzwords as soon as you utter them. Especially, when the only thing you’re really interested in is, “When can I go home?” How do you learn or teach flexibility?

In his seminal work, On War, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote about how the general needs to muster all his resources and crucially have a clear strategic purpose. But the cornerstone of his work is that war is chaos and that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (actually, a different German general said that). Everything falls apart when the bullets or memos are flying. Perhaps the only way to teach flexibility is to teach chaos.

Reprinted with the kind permission of