Embrace Chaos – or how to plan lightly and act effectively

There are a handful of basic principles I use for improvising with style, most of them taken from military strategy.

  • No plan survives first contact with the enemy
  • Strategy is a system of expedients
  • Seven plus or minus two
  • OODA Loop
  • Grandmasters don’t see bad moves
  • Analysis paralysis is as bad as knowing nothing at all.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is often known as the First Rule of Battles, and it and “strategy is a system of expedients” were both formulated by von Moltke the Elder. Personally I’d add the corollary to the first “Few plans survive contact with their own side.” But what does this mean?  It means that you can’t make one single overarching plan and expect everything to go according to plan. It just won’t work.  You’re going to have to patch, to fix, and to repair it as you go, and be scrambling to keep up.  A good plan therefore has contingencies built in but that isn’t always (or even usually) enough.  If a plan is still in its defined contingencies things are going according to plan.  You’re eventually going to need a system of expedients – flexible alternatives that you can use to plug random gaps.  And it’s these flexible alternatives I’m going to concentrate on.

Seven plus or minus two – why you want deep rather than many options

Seven plus or minus two is the number of things, according to some psychological research, that a human can keep in working memory.  (Of course most memory exercises involve chaining things together so each leads to the next and you only look at the top level of detail).  Keeping your total number of tools low is therefore a good idea – and having depth to those tools.

Of course, organisation really helps here.  You can have seven plus or minus two sentences – or seven plus or minus two books and in each of those books about seven chapters, and each of those chapters about seven sections, and each has about seven paragraphs, and each has about seven sentences.    If the books are properly marked you can find the sentence you need while never breaking the seven plus or minus two rule.  Or in terms of physical tools to carry around, my four big ones are keys, smartphone, wallet, swiss army knife.  Most problems I run into while travelling suggest one of these tools – and all are multi-functional but have little overlap.  (The biggest one is between the torch on my keyring, and the light provided by my smartphone).

The OODA Loop and Orientation

The OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is how most people and organisations work out how to do things.  Observe; work out what is going on.  Orient; work out what options they have.  Decide; Which option to use.  Act; do it.  A lot of military theory works  on shortening your OODA loop to get inside your enemy’s – but that oversimplification isn’t what worries us here as the world is not an opponent.  What worries us is the Orient phase (which is probably the most important part of the OODA loop anyway).

(Image from Wikimedia by Patrick Edward Moran)

When plans break, it’s the Orient step that matters.  The options we see based on the information we have.  It’s almost entirely in our heads (although a lot of work is done in large organisations to align everyone’s orient function so the organisation can work as a unit, which is why you get jokes about “The right way, the wrong way and the army way” or a British Classical education – everyone working from the same playbook allows an organisation to work together).  So we need to train our Orient step to see options especially where there’s no major plan.

Of course if you do have a specific opponent, getting inside their OODA loop is worth knowing about.  You do this one of three ways – the first is that you mess with their observation.  What they can’t see clearly they can’t deal with effectively.  The second is that you know their orient step so can see how they will respond and deal with it first.  The third, the one that is normally talked about and is a massive simplification most of the time is moving onto your next phase before they’ve finished their previous; this is normally an oversimplification from someone thinking of discrete loops rather than the continual observation and starting the next phase before the previous one has played out (although it can work with a massive training difference).  Where it’s most relevant is low level control running rings round high level; if the people on the ground have the initiative to act on their own observations rather than reporting and waiting for orders things are a lot faster and you really can change tactics three times before your opponent has once.  Low level initiative matters.

Selective blindness is a good thing – ask chess grandmasters

This brings me on to (chess) Grandmasters not seeing bad moves.  According to Gary Kasparov (arguably the best chess player there’s ever been), grandmasters see is “Just one, the best one.”  He’s exaggerating.  But think about it.  Someone who barely knows the moves of chess will see moves like moving the king two squares straight forward.  A bad player may consider developing the bishop to rook’s third – something that will almost never cross the mind of an average player.  And if you’re a programmer (or in any other profession) and have ever wondered “Why the *@#& would anyone ever do that?” it’s generally because they don’t know enough to not see the bad options.  Pruning what you see to only the effective is as useful as expanding your options in the orient phase, and is also the answer to analysis paralysis.

Putting it all together

So.  How do we put this all together?  We want flexible and powerful tools (incidentally money is one of the most flexible and powerful tools going – its chief advantage is that it can make all except the most serious problems go away so you don’t need to worry about them).  We need to organise our tools so we know where to find them and what they can do.  We need to get rid of tools that we wouldn’t remember because their job is covered – it’s just clutter.  And then we need to embrace chaos so we know what to worry about and keep our tools practiced.  Something we don’t use ever will drop out of our orient phase.

Go forth and embrace chaos – but not too much.  And may you live in slightly interesting times.


1 thought on “Embrace Chaos – or how to plan lightly and act effectively

  1. Rather a lot to digest here! I like the seven plus or minus two idea, and will probably be using that one quite a lot.

    As you say, Kasparov is exaggerating, but the principle is correct. That was how he beat Deep Thought and Deep Blue, which were able to orders of magnitude more permutations than any human brain could handle. Their weakness, the main thing that’s holding back the development of even stronger chess computers, was not knowing which were the bad moves, at least not until they’d played them through to the bitter end.

    But I think I should add that it’s a principle that can also mislead, especially if you don’t know as much as you think you do (paging Dunning and/or Kruger). When I was learning Bridge, I remember being presented with a sample hand as declarer. I spent ages unable to win the 12 tricks the exercise demanded, because I was seeing the first trick as one that I should win with my Ace in hand. By letting that trick go, I had the right cards in the right places to win the rest, but I didn’t see that as an option, because it fell into my mental basket marked “bad ideas”.

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