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.
…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
||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.