Friction in War & Life

In “On War,” Clausewitz discusses friction extensively. The small difficulties experienced on the battlefield, Clausewitz successfully argued, cannot be entirely conceived. And while many of these difficulties are not that impactful on their own, combined with the myriad of other challenges one will likely face, even the easiest of tasks becomes challenging. One of the Laws of Combat espoused by Jocko Willink in “Extreme Ownership” is the concept of Simple.  However, simple does not imply easy. By relating the concepts of simple and friction, in War especially, plans, orders, actions must be kept simple because as Clausewitz states, “everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Such as in life.

War is an extreme example of these friction forces and their impact on the most extreme environment an individual can experience. But in life, we feel these frictions everyday. The small, compounding factors in our lives can easily take us to a place where it feels as though we cannot accomplish even the simplest of tasks. In “Essentialism” a major part of the challenge we all face in life is determining how we spend our limited time and who we invite into our lives. Unfortunately, Clausewitz also points out that “through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.”

How do we overcome these frictions. Here Clausewitz also provides some suggestions. Here, a strong will and unwavering discipline can overcome friction, but at a cost. “A powerful iron will overcomes this friction; it crushes the obstacles, but certainly the machine along with them.” The effort expending to overcome the friction comes at a cost. Sometimes the cost of that effort results in accomplishing the mission or achieving your desired end state but with the complete destruction of the machine itself.

So how do we deal with the consequences of overcoming this friction? First, keep things simple. Second, get comfortable being uncomfortable. That means you will not and cannot know everything or plan for every conceivable contingency. Accept that the fate of chance will rear its ugly head and that you must deal with it. Finally, realize that reality and life are going to be the greatest teachers. Theory and study will only take you so far meaning that “War is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man immersed in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking, so in War, with ordinary powers, one cannot keep even the line of mediocrity. This is the reason that the correct theorist is like a swimming master, who teaches on dry land movements which are required in the water, which must appear grotesque and ludicrous to those who forget about the water.”

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Dreams and Success

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Henry David Thoreau

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The Cynefin Framework

Ordered Contexts: Simple (known knowns) and Complicated (known unknowns)

  • Simple: Sense, Categorize, Respond
  • Complicated: Sense, Analyze, Respond

Unordered Contexts: Complex (unknown unknowns) and Chaotic (unknowables)

  • Complex: Probe, Sense, Respond
  • Chaotic: Act, Sense, Respond



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“A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” by David Snowden and Mary Boone

I’ve seen leadership employed at a number of levels with varying levels of success. The most successful leaders I have encountered are the ones that are able to adapt to changing circumstances and that are receptive to innovative ideas from unlikely sources. Although the “wisdom of the crowd” is not great for making long-term decisions, it has it’s place in coming up with new solutions to old problems. In the military context, leadership is heavily hierarchal. That being the case, the military hierarchy is slow to react to quick changes wrought by the information age. Many senior leaders become stuck on “best practices”, confusing that approach with a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem the may encounter. As this article explains, the complex environments that are encountered in today’s technically advanced world, do not adhere to basic cause-and-effect relationships. The sum of all parts does not always equal the outcome, and a combination of simple, perhaps benign, interactions, can have unpredictable and wild results. Adept leaders must be able to operate in all environments, whether they be simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. More importantly, that same leader must be humble enough to know when they are not the best-equipped individual to make decisions in every one of these environments.

Following are some of the notes from the article published by the Harvard Business Review:

  1. Cynefin (the conceptual framework), pronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand.
  2. The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these- simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic- require leaders to diagnose situations to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth- disorder- applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.
  3. Leaders who understand that the world is often irrational and unpredictable will find the Cynefin framework particularly useful.
  4. Simple Contexts are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. often, the right answer is self-evident and undisputed. In this realm of “known knowns,” decisions are unquestioned because all parties share an understanding.
  5. Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring. Here, leaders sense, categorize, and respond. that is, they assess the facts of the situation, categorize them, and then base their response on established practice.
  6. In simple contexts, issues may be incorrectly classified within this domain because they have been oversimplified. Leaders who constantly ask for condensed information, regardless of the complexity of the situation, particularly run this risk. Leaders are susceptible to “entrained thinking,” a conditioned response that occurs when people are blinded to new ways of thinking by the perspectives they acquired through past experience, training, and success. When things appear to be going smoothly, leaders often become complacent.
  7. The simple domain lies adjacent to the chaotic. The most frequent collapses into chaos occur because success has bred complacency.
  8. It’s important to remember that best practice is, by definition, past practice.
  9. Complicated context, unlike simple ones, may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. This is the realm of “known unknowns.” While leaders in a simple context must sense, categorize, and respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond.
  10. Entrained thinking is a danger in complicated contexts, too, but it is the experts (rather than the leaders) who are prone to it, and they tend to dominate the domain. When this problem occurs, innovative suggestions by non-experts may be overlooked or dismissed, resulting in lost opportunities.
  11. Another potential obstacle is “analysis paralysis,” where a group of experts hits a stalemate, unable to agree on any answers because of each individual’s entrained thinking- or ego.
  12. Reaching decisions in the complicated domain can often take a lot of time, and there is always a trade-off between finding the right answer and simply making a decision.
  13. In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. In a complicated context, the whole is the sum of its parts. In a complex context, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. The is the realm of the “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.
  14. Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change introduces unpredictability and flux. Instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.
  15. Conditions of scarcity often produce more creative results than conditions of abundance.
  16. Leaders face several challenges in the complex domain. Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles- to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.
  17. In a Chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist- only turbulence. This is the realm of the unknowables.
  18. In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to stanch the bleeding. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities. Communication of the most direct top-down or broadcast kind is imperative; there’s simply no time to ask for input.
  19. One excellent technique is to manage chaos and innovation in parallel: The minute you encounter a crisis, appoint a reliable manager or crisis management team to resolve the issue.
  20. Good leadership requires openness to change on an individual level. Truly adept leaders will know not only how to identify the context they’re working in at any given time but also how to change their behavior and their decisions to match that context.
  21. Business schools and organizations equip leaders to operate in ordered domains (simple and complicated), but most leaders usually must rely on their natural capabilities when operating in unordered contexts (complex and chaotic).
  22. Leaders often will be called upon to act against their instincts. They will need to now when to share power and when to wield it alone, when to look to the wisdom of the group and when to take their own counsel. A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style will be required for leaders who want to make things happen in a time of increasing uncertainty.


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Understanding Complexity by Snowden and Boone

The following are excerpts from “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” published in Harvard Business Review by David Snowden and Mary Boone.

A complex system has the following characteristics:

  • It involves large numbers of interacting elements.
  • The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.
  • The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence.
  • The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.
  • Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and system constantly change.
  • Unlike in ordered systems (where the system constrains the agents), or chaotic systems (where there are not constraints), in a complex system the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time. This means that we cannot forecast or predict what will happen.

Some thinkers and practitioners have started to argue that human complex systems are very different from those in nature and cannot be modeled in the same ways because of human unpredictability and intellect. Consider the following ways in which humans are distinct from other animals:

  • They have multiple identities and can fluidly switch between them without conscious thought.
  • They make decisions based on past patterns of success and failure, rather than on logical, definable rules.
  • They can, in certain circumstances, purposefully change the systems in which they operate to equilibrium states in order to create predictable outcomes.


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“The Dichotomy Of Leadership” by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

“The Dichotomy of Leadership” is the follow-on publication to Willink and Babin’s first venture, “Extreme Ownership.” Many of the lessons from the first book are repeated in this book but the authors take a closer look at the dichotomies that appear to leaders at all levels. Leadership, just as in life, takes a certain level of balance across multiple spectrums. If the scale tips too far in one direction or the other, an entire ecosystem can be in jeopardy. At first glance, the lessons preached in “Extreme Ownership” can seem just that, extreme. Upon closer inspection the reader will find that “extreme” is analogous to “all-encompassing.” None of the character traits like aggressiveness or humility are useful if taken to the extreme. But if the individual owns the actions and consequences of their entire world to an extreme level, they can only be successful if they understand and are successful in balancing the dichotomies of leadership. Three of my personal favorite dichotomies are Aggressive but not Reckless, Confident but not Cocky, and Humble but not Passive.

  1. We discovered firsthand that the principles of leadership are “simple, but not easy.” There are strategies, techniques, and skills that take time and practice to utilize effectively. The foremost requirement for potent leadership is humility, so that leaders can fully understand and appreciate their own shortfalls.
  2. In most cases, rather than extremes, leadership requires balance. Leaders must find the equilibrium between opposing forces that pull in opposite directions. Being aggressive but cautious, disciplined but not rigid, a leader but also a follower—it applies to almost every aspect of leadership.
  3. The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job.
  4. If mistakes happen, effective leaders don’t place blame on others. They take ownership of the mistakes, determine what went wrong, develop solutions to correct those mistakes and prevent them from happening again as they move forward.
  5. The first Law of Combat: Cover and Move. This is teamwork—every individual and team within the team, mutually supporting one another to accomplish the mission.
  6. It doesn’t matter if one element within the group does its job: if the team fails, everybody fails.
  7. The second Law of Combat: Simple. Complexity breeds chaos and disaster, especially when things go wrong. And things always go wrong.
  8. The third Law of Combat: Prioritize and Execute. When multiple problems occur simultaneously (which happens often), taking on too many problems at once results in failure. It is imperative that leaders detach themselves—pull back from the details—and assess to determine the highest priority to the strategic mission.
  9. The fourth Law of Combat: Decentralized Command. No one leader can manage it all or make every decision. Instead, leadership must be decentralized, with leaders at every level empowered to make decisions, right down to the frontline troopers in charge of no one but themselves and their small piece of the mission.
  10. To empower everyone on the team to lead, team members must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. This requires clear and frequent communication up and down the chain of command—and most importantly: trust.
  11. “The fact that you care about your people more than anything—but at the same time you have to lead them. And as a leader, you might have to make decisions that hurt individuals on your team. But you also have to make decisions that will allow you to continue the mission for the greater good of everyone on the team.
  12. Here are the commons symptoms that result from micromanagement: 1. The team shows a lack of initiative. Members will not take action unless directed. 2. The team does not seek solutions to problems; instead, its members sit and wait to be told about a solution. 3. Even in an emergency, a team that is being micromanaged will not mobilize and take action. 4. Bold and aggressive action becomes rare. 5. Creativity grinds to a halt. 6. The team tends to stay inside their own silo; not stepping out to coordinate efforts with other departments or divisions for fear of overstepping their bounds. 7. An overall sense of passivity and failure to react.
  13. The mission, the goal, and the end state must be explained in a simple, clear, and concise manner.
  14. I should have explained that more clearly to you,” I said. “Leaders can actually take too much ownership. Yes, with Extreme Ownership you are responsible for everything in your world. But you can’t make every decision. You have to empower your team to lead, to take ownership. So you have to give them ownership.
  15. There were times when I let things slide, confusing the idea of “taking care of your people” with allowing them not to work as hard.
  16. There is a time to stand firm and enforce rules and there is a time to give ground and allow the rules to bend. Finding that balance is critical for leaders to get maximum effectiveness from their team.
  17. the most important explanation a leader can give to the team is “why?” Particularly when a leader must hold the line and enforce standards, it must always be done with the explanation of why it is important, why it will help accomplish the mission, and what the consequences are for failing to do so. It must never be done with the attitude of “because I said so.” To do so will result in far more pushback and more difficulty in getting the team to achieve the standards you are trying to enforce.
  18. While a leader must do everything possible to help develop and improve the performance of individuals on the team, a leader must also understand when someone does not have what it takes to get the job done.
  19. Most underperformers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led.
  20. The goal of any leader is to get the most out of every individual—to push each individual to reach his or her maximum potential so that the team itself can reach its maximum potential.
  21. A leader must be loyal to his individual team members and take care of them, but at the same time he must be loyal to the team itself and ensure that every member of the team has a net positive impact and doesn’t detract from mission execution.
  22. Leadership—at every level—is the critical factor in whether a team succeeds or fails.
  23. The best leaders—often those who learned through experience what worked and what didn’t—looked out for the long-term success of the team and the mission. They didn’t shy away from tough conversations to correct underperformance. They held the standards high and ensured the team was fully prepared for the worst-case scenario. Leaders who pushed their people to excel, to continuously learn and grow, enabled their teams to become comfortable in situations where they were previously uncomfortable.
  24. As in everything, leaders must find the balance in training and focus on three critical aspects: realism, fundamentals, and repetition.
  25. Training must be continuous for everyone. Each person gets better with iterations, so it is important to plan repetitive training over time that challenges each member of the team—particularly leaders.
  26. The best training programs are not orchestrated from the top but driven from the bottom—the frontline leaders who are closest to the action and the lessons learned.
  27. Make time for the things that are important.
  28. Aggression is not always the answer. Aggression must be balanced with logic and detailed analysis of risk versus reward.
  29. While being aggressive is a great default attitude to have, it still must be balanced with caution and careful consideration to ensure it is not a case of excessive risk with limited reward.
  30. Problems aren’t going to solve themselves—a leader must get aggressive and take action to solve them and implement a solution. Being too passive and waiting for a solution to appear often enables a problem to escalate and get out of control.
  31. The best teams, don’t wait to act. Instead, understanding the strategic vision (or commander’s intent), they aggressively execute to overcome obstacles, capitalize on immediate opportunities, accomplish the mission, and win.
  32. Losing your temper is a sign of weakness.
  33. The aggression that wins on the battlefield, in business, or in life is directed not toward people but toward solving problems, achieving goals, and accomplishing the mission.
  34. It is a leader’s duty to fight against this victory disease so that the team, despite its success, never gets complacent.
  35. While a leader wants team members to police themselves because they understand why, the leader still has to hold people accountable through some level of inspection to ensure that the why is not only understood but being acted upon.
  36. If a subordinate is not performing to standard, despite understanding why, despite knowing the impact on the mission, and despite being given ownership, then a leader must hold the line.
  37. The leader must drill down and micromanage tasks in order to get the subordinate on track. But the leader cannot stay there. The leader must eventually give subordinates leeway to perform based on their own intrinsic drive—not because they are being held accountable, and not based on the micromanagement of the leader, but because they have a better understanding of why.
  38. Use accountability as a tool when needed, but don’t rely on it as the sole means of enforcement. A reliance on heavy accountability consumes the time and focus of the leader and inhibits the trust, growth, and development of subordinates.
  39. “Leading” didn’t mean pushing my agenda or proving I had all the answers. It was about collaborating with the rest of the team and determining how we could most effectively accomplish our mission.
  40. Every leader must be ready and willing to take charge, to make hard, crucial calls for the good of the team and the mission. That is inherent in the very term “leader.” But leaders must also have the ability to follow. This was a difficult dichotomy: in order to be a good leader, you must also be a good follower. Finding that balance is key.
  41. When the team wins, much of the credit goes to the leader, whether or not that leader was the person driving the operation, tactics, or strategy, and a good leader pushes the praise and accolades down to their team.
  42. You should strive to have the same relationship with every boss you ever work for, no matter if they are good or bad. Whether they are an outstanding leader whom you admire, a mediocre leader who needs improvement, or a terrible leader for whom no one on the team has respect, you must strive to form the same relationship with all of them.”
  43. The relationship to seek with any boss incorporates three things: 1) They trust you. 2) They value and seek your opinion and guidance. 3) They give you what you need to accomplish your mission and then let you go execute.
  44. Misery can be a remarkably effective teacher. And this was a lesson I would never forget: don’t try to plan for every contingency. Doing so will only overburden you and weigh you down so that you cannot quickly maneuver. Yes, contingency planning is extremely important.
  45. For planning, there is a dichotomy within which leaders must find balance. You cannot plan for every contingency. If you try to create a solution for every single potential problem that might arise, you overwhelm your team, you overwhelm the planning process, you overcomplicate decisions for leaders.
  46. Nothing breeds arrogance like success.
  47. There was a dichotomy to being humble: being humble didn’t mean being passive. It didn’t mean not to push back when it truly mattered. While I didn’t have the visibility or complete understanding of the strategic picture that the boss and his staff at the task group had, they also lacked understanding of how strategic direction or requirements impacted our tactical operations on the front lines. And it was up to me to push that information up the chain of command. Humility has to be balanced by knowing when to make a stand.
  48. While a leader can’t be passive, a leader must also carefully prioritize when and where to push back. Leaders have an obligation to support their chain of command and carry out the orders that come from above.
  49. A leader must be humble, must listen to others, must not act arrogant or cocky. But a leader must balance that and know that there are times to question superiors, to push back, to stand up and make sure the right things are being done for the right reasons.
  50. A leader cannot be passive. When it truly matters, leaders must be willing to push back, voice their concerns, stand up for the good of their team, and provide feedback up the chain against a direction or strategy they know will endanger the team or harm the strategic mission.
  51. Leaders must be humble enough to listen to new ideas, willing to learn strategic insights, and open to implementing new and better tactics and strategies. But a leader must also be ready to stand firm when there are clearly unintended consequences that negatively impact the mission and risk harm to the team.
  52. Where are you casting blame or waiting for others to solve problems that you should be solving?”
  53. Naturally, leaders must be attentive to details. However, leaders cannot be so immersed in the details that they lose track of the larger strategic situation and are unable to provide command and control for the entire team.
  54. Leaders must still be attentive to the details, understand the challenges of the teams executing the mission at the front echelon, and position themselves where they can best support their teams. This is the dichotomy that must be balanced: to become engrossed in and overwhelmed by the details risks mission failure, but to be so far detached from the details that the leader loses control is to fail the team and fail the mission.


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Thoughts for My Sons: A Collective

This blog itself started as a collection of excerpts from books I have read. As a repository for thoughts, I value having a single collection point of searchable and linkable notes to re-visit easily. So while the blog is for my own edification, I have started keeping a catalog of thoughts to share with my two sons over time. Many of these thoughts, quotes, sayings, and aphorisms apply to my own life, but I want my sons, along with anyone else whom may find value in them, to have them as well. A majority of these ideas I cannot attribute to anyone in particular because I write them down in a small notebook at the time I hear them so they are not forgotten to the annals of a busy mind and busier life. Over time I will continue to add to these thoughts and maybe one day even later I will expound on each of these thoughts individually.

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