Boyd for the agile humanitarian organization?

We have been re-reading John Boyd’s seminal Patterns of Conflict (PDF found here) and were struck, once again, by the relevance of his thinking for the 21st Century humanitarian organization.

Boyd writes,

…in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries… Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing… rhythm or patterns they are competing against.

Boyd was talking about aerial combat, with reference to other forms of warfare. In a recent post, we reflected on how others (such as John Robb) are pointing out that modern terrorists groups are successfully using this approach against established states and organizations.

Is it possible for humanitarian groups to use these same tactics to be more effective in their own work? If so, what might this look like? Boyd identifies the following attributes of a successful aircraft operating against such conditions. Below we map these principles to principles of planning and action for the humanitarian organization to see how well they fit (slightly edited from Boyd’s original list for ease of reference).

Boyd’s “Recipe for Generating confusion and disorder” Equivalent concepts for the 21st century humanitarian organization
Quick clear scanning sensors Risk assessment, early warning systems, and anticipatory planning processes
Quick shoot fire control systems and high speed weapons Rapid logistical deployment to crisis situations coupled with effective technological and social intervention
High speed, acceleration and deceleration Strategy: rapid policy making, decision-taking, and organizational responsiveness
High maneuverability Tactical: Able to change policy and practice rapidly to face changing circumstances

This mapping is clearly quite crude but nevertheless opens some interesting doors for comparison. For example, Boyd argues that in times of rapid change and uncertainty (i.e., when one is facing challenges of a faster tempo than one can make sense of), “it is advantageous to possess a variety of responses that can be applied rapidly” to achieve one’s goals.

This suggest having a diverse playbook for crisis response and wide range of skill sets and mental models ready at hand. To do so requires both top-down visionary leadership and emergent, bottom-up listening. He also argues that “cooperation and harmony of activities” are essential.

Finally he writes, “to shape and adapt to change one cannot be passive; instead one must take the initiative.” This highlights the essential component of agency in the face of uncertainty, which could be framed as being more proactive than reactive. This highlights one of the findings of the joint HFP / Tufts report on “Ambiguity and Change”, which was that to be successful, 21st century humanitarian organizations must achieve a paradigm shift and bridge the gap to sustainable development, not just “cleaning up” after the fact.

Put more simply and directly: the above comments leave one with the impression that variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Clearly this is of tremendous relevance to the HFP’s mission enhance the anticipatory and collaborative capacities of humanitarian organizations.


One Response to Boyd for the agile humanitarian organization?

  1. hfpblog says:

    NOTE: Chet Richards, one of Boyd’s collaborators, adds an interesting qualifier to these comments. In his blog post here, he writes,

    “According to this idea, the key to victory is to be able to create situations wherein one can make appropriate decisions more quickly than one’s opponent.”

    I know it does seem like that at times, but it can get you into a mode of trying to hurry through decisions. I think this notion may stem from the idea that in military campaigns, particularly down at the tactical level, operating tempo is very important — once something starts to break, you want to keep it moving along so rapidly that the enemy can’t figure out what is happening and even becomes panicked by the resulting confusion and chaos. According to people I’ve talked to who have used maneuver warfare, this is exactly what happens.

    But, a few things to remember.

    First, we’re talking just one application of the principles, combat.
    Second, even in combat, people talk about the need for the commander to stay cool, that is, to keep focusing on the situation and not get swamped by the rush of events. That is, to keep orientation accurate.
    Third, it doesn’t make any difference how long it takes you to make a decision, so long as you make an appropriate decision when a decision is required. Most of the time, you won’t be making decisions at all — actions will flow via the Implicit Guidance and Control link from orientation. Toyota even talks about making better cars faster by delaying decisions (for more info, Google the paper “The Second Toyota Paradox” by Allen Ward, et al.)”

    Great addendum Chet. Thank you.

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