Why Mars? Elon Musk’s Strategy

Why Mars?  What is Elon Musk’s Strategy?

observatory

Hey guys.  I actually went over this a few times with colleagues over the  summer, and started writing this right before Elon Musk started his Mars PR campaign in September.  Just missed the chance to appear prophetic.

As it is this is still a fun topic.

So Ted,  Why Mars?

A Problem 

First we need to go back about 20 years.  Hang with me a sec – I’ll keep it to the point.  In the 20th century – there was basically 2 ways to get anything over a few hundred pounds into space.  Very big rockets or the space shuttle.  Rockets were a little less expensive than the space shuttle, and didn’t need astronauts, but didn’t carry as much weight.  

To get an idea of what rockets were like before Mr. Musk got into the business, there were only really 3 heavy lift options by 2000. The Atlas rocket was first built in 1957 by Martin (to carry nuclear bombs), The Delta rocket first as the Thor ICBM in 1957 by Douglas (also to carry nuclear bombs), and the Space Shuttle in 1981 by Rockwell.  It was all government money, cost didn’t matter.  The rockets were big, expensive, single use disposable products.  By the late 1990’s Martin Marietta was owned by Lockheed Martin, and Boeing owned McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell.  Notice all the
names – what was 7 aerospace companies became 2.  Rockets imgreswere not the best business to be in.  By 2006 Boeing and Lockheed combined the Atlas and Delta Programs into a single company called United Launch Alliance.  

And the whole time it cost you a few hundred million dollars for what amounted to a souped up 1950’s rocket sometimes using Russian made engines, to put something into space in the United States.  There are some other rockets out there, but we are keeping this simple, and focusing on what NASA uses.

An Opportunity

So in 2001, Elon Musk, Tech entrepreneur with degrees and physics and economics was getting a payday from the companies he had built in the 90’s, namely PayPal, and was pretty well connected.

If you are a well respected entrepreneur with access to investors, over a hundred million dollars of your own money, and happen to be educated as a physicist, you get to chase your dreams and dream big.

Elon Musk speaks in terms of existential risk.  That is, what is threatening the existence of the human race, and what can you do about it?  Also keep in mind this was not long after all those disaster movies where asteroids hits the earth.

So the big dream – colonize other planets, get people living somewhere other than earth so we have options.  In 2001 all Musk was talking about was putting a robot greenhouse on Mars to see if we could grow stuff in Martian soil and also generate interest in space exploration.  He talked around, looked at options, got laughed out of Russia, twice.

Elon Musk ran into the problem we started with – the big rockets were all based on 1950’s cold war technology, were very expensive (a few hundred million $ per rocket), single use, disposable, hard to get access to even if you had the money, and required an army of people to build and launch.

Frustrated, he did what any physicist, economist, technology entrepreneur does.  He ran the numbers, did some calcs, and the more he looked at it, the more he figured he could drop the price by a factor of ten, and make good money launching rockets for $60 million a launch. 

So now we are going to steal from project management theory – run a backwards pass (start at the end and work your way to the beginning) of the basic logic that created the strategy that Elon Musk has been running with for 15 years now:

Backwards pass – Mars Strategy:

  • Problem – Colonize Space
  • Solution – Try Mars first, it’s cooler than going to the moon (been there, done that, not to mention the pop culture fascination with Mars).
  • Problem – Getting to Mars just once is way too expensive – just the required heavy lift rocket is a few hundred million dollars. And you’ll need lots of rockets.
  • Solution (2016) – Innovate heavy lift rockets that cost ten times less.  This is A005_C008_1221PL
    accomplished through cutting edge software, automation, modular design, new technology, new materials and manufacturing techniques and reusing as much of the rockets as possible. (
    Watch first ever rocket landing video 2:05 mark ).  SpaceX will put a payload into space for $57 million.  ULA’s price point is $200 Million after a cost savings campaign.
  • Problem – You need to be good at the rocket business before you can compete with United Launch Alliance, NASA, and anybody else.
  • Solution (2010)- Build a competitive rocket business first.
  • Problem – You need to learn to crawl before you walk, let alone run.
  • Solution (2006) – Start small with an prototype entry level rocket (Falcon 1), using $100M of your own money.  Prove the basics before you scale up.  And innovate as much as you can knowing what you need for that heavy lift rocket down the road.
  • Problem – It takes allot of money to get into the rocket business.
  • Solution (2002) – Find a wealthy and convincing tech entrepreneur to sell a dream.  

Elon Musk’s schwerpunkt always has been to get to Mars.  The rest of the strategy was about making that happen.  While SpaceX has been breaking records and doing things for the first time ever; NASA who is basically controlled by congress retired the old Shuttle Program, and had no rockets to call their own; and United Launch Alliance motivated by profit is downsizing, restructuring, and trying to figure out how to keep up.

Because SpaceX started in 2002, was fully funded in 2006, only launched 5 basic Falcon 1 home_block_careersrockets from 2006 to 2009, and spent the last 7 years simply building and innovating a low cost reusable rocket business with commercial and government contracts, including NASA and Air Force contracts….  Everyone seems to forget the 15 years ago Elon musk went into the rocket business because he wanted to colonize Mars.

That is until he reminded us in a big way last month – probably because he’s to the point where he needs to start generating interest and fundraising to take it to the next logical progression of his multi decade campaign to put people on Mars.  If you take a look at his speaking tour the last couple of weeks, that looks to be exactly what he is doing.

Now anybody familiar with multibillion dollar engineering projects already knows it will take longer, be harder, and more expensive than what Elon Musk is advertising.  As is evidenced by the explosion they had recently.

Every Astrophysicist will tell you that nobody has figured out good solutions to Mars colony challenges… Problems like deadly radiation, electrostatic dust sticking to everything, long duration equipment, long term health effects of half earth gravity…  There’s lots of science and engineering yet to be done.

But the Wall Street Analysts will tell you that SpaceX is making a healthy profit, beating its competitors (United Launch Alliance, NASA, the Russians, really everyone), and it’s only a matter of time until SpaceX solves the technical problems, makes it affordable, and raises the money to do it.

And if you want the strategic science lesson – it’s that a startup trying to put people on Mars is better at building and launching rockets than government run NASA and profit driven ULA. It’s why business schools teach that mission and vision statement stuff – because chasing dreams tends to yield better results, better structure, better culture than chasing votes or money.

falcon_9_launch_and_landing_streak

An images thanks to SpaceX and ULA Websites
Posted in Business Strategy, Space, Strategy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is the US uninvadable?

So kids, this is something I killed a morning  with on Quora back in April – an excuse to write about a scenario I’ve obviously been thinking about for a long time.  After a few months it’s at 161,500 views, so I figure it’s worth sharing on my blog that gets a handful of hits everyday.  Enjoy!

Is the US uninvadable?

Ted Galpin, Astrophysicist cheerleader turned professional strategist

No.  If you think like a ruthless military strategist, and don’t mind civilian casualties it’s VERY doable.  Read the history of Sun Tzu and how he made his name.  Here’s how I would do it.  You have to go unconventional.

From a conventional standpoint – the basics have been covered by other answers well enough. Even without a military, The United states has a pretty well armed civilian population, and a HUGE amount of territory, hundreds of millions of people.  We can raise a militia of 50 million well armed men very easily.

Invade, occupy, conquer the US?  Unlikely in the conventional sense.

But you could raid, sack, and burn down the US and take allot if you had the resources of a major nation (Russia, China, India, Pakistan, England, France, maybe Israel or Iran).

Step 1 – Q Ships, Light ballistic Missiles, Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse.

Q-ship technically is a WWI thing – really just an innocent looking freighter or civilian ship with enough concealed weapons to surprise and destroy pirates and submarine attacks on a transport convoy.

So first you get some really innocent looking freighters – there are thousands of them today.  You put some old school SCUDs, or other relatively simple Ballistic missile systems in the hold pointed up.

You arm them with the best atomic warheads you can get a hold of.

You get as close to the US shores as you like – and you fire those missle up into high altitude above the US – probably multiple times from multiple ships, ideally east coast, west coast, gulf of mexico, and great lakes.

Nuclear electromagnetic pulse

The idea is to make lots of those red circles over as many cities as you can.  And a couple of orange and yellow ones for good measure – say 10 or 20 missile shot up into high altitude of 20 miles above major population centers.  Plus a few higher and wider if not as strong, just for good measure.

You could do the same from Disguised satellites as well, but it would be much harder.

Result of Step 1:Nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP)

Without entering US territory, with a handful of freighters launching nuclear warheads, detonated high in the atmosphere, you can saturate the US with electromagnetic pluses.

So What?  Well, given the state of the US infrastructure, as I understand it from my career engineering it:

  • All consumer electronics will be dead.  All transistors get fried by an EMP.
    • Your car won’t start – electronic ignitions have been standard for decades.
    • No Cell phones
    • No Internet
    • No TV
    • No Refrigeration – food will start to spoil in days
    • No Microwaves or electric stoves. Really hard to cook food, unless you have a grill on your porch.
  • All US infrastructure will be damaged and/or inoperable.
    • Limited Commerce / Money.  Most of us use credit and debit cards.  With out internet, you are stuck with the cash in your pocket.
    • No Electricity – the power plant control, transmission, and distribution systems are not shielded, and it would take weeks or months to get the electricity back on; after undamaged parts are imported from outside the EMP area.
    • No / Limited Water – because the water supply is pumped.  If the pumps have no power, your faucet won’t work.
    • No / Limited Natural Gas – Same pump issue as the water.
    • Limited Fuel – all the electric pumps are dead, so you have to know what you are doing to simply get gas from a gas station, if they let you use tools on their pumps.  Even if you have the cash, and a 40 year old car, would they let you siphon from the main tank?
    • Food supply
      • No cold storage – fresh food goes bad in days
      • No vehicles – can’t transport food supplies
      • Industrial farms and agriculture need  electricity and water.  What happens to the feed lots, industrial dairy, chicken factories, irrigated fields?

So imagine waking up one morning, and everything is silent.  No Cars.  No Heat.  No Air Conditioning.  No Phone.  Your Cell phone is dead.  No radio or TV.  Nothing turns on.  Even your watch stopped, and your LED Flashlight won’t work.  The food in your freezer is starting to warm up, you can’t take a shower.

And you have no idea why because all communications are out.

And the only vehicles that work are kick start motorcycles and some cars and trucks, the older the better.  All test that have been done  in the last ten years show that some vehicles die, some don’t, some malfunction.  The less electronics in the car, the better the odds it will survive.

Now multiply those problems by 300 million people across the United states.

At best, you have a humanitarian nightmare, because nobody knows what is going on, and our technology and tools have been reduced to mostly the dark ages.  The only things that still works reliably are guns and fire.  And I will bet that looting and crime will be a huge problem.  You can’t call for help.

Consider that after a few days, 300 million people will be confused, desperate, dehydrated, starving and cold in the dark on foot with no way to know what is going on or if help is coming.

And the military will have the same problems.  The Navy ships will be ok – but a few hundred ships need to get here first, and can only do so much, near the coasts.  The cold war era weapons were pretty well shielded from EMP – so most military trucks, Humvees, some of the helicopters, some of the jets, will still work.

But the electricity and water problem is true for the military – as most bases use city electricity and water (They have published studies).  Most of the military battle networks, digital communications, GPS, lasers, smart weapons, Night vision, digital cameras, won’t work.  The Army will basically be stuck with 1980’s technology.  They say some of the digital stuff is shielded enough, so the Army may still have some laptops and digital radios.  But the infrastructure to support 21st century battle space awareness and communications – will be limited.   They will still have some magic, but very limited compared to what they are used to.  Don’t expect to see many drones.

So basically – after Step 1 – which is find a deniable method of EMP attack on the continental US.  Basically you have a massive humanitarian disaster with the US plunged into the dark ages, and the military will have their hands full simply trying to take care of it’s own, and provide as much humanitarian support as they can, while crime, looting, or scavenging becomes necessary for most of us to simply eat.  Not to mention the healthcare, disease, and sanitation problems.

So the entire US population is facing a humanitarian nightmare, and the military has additional logistics, supply, and communications problems on top of that.

Step 2 –  If you are organized and prepared, step 2 is is literally Sun Tzu 101.

You can play hard or soft.  But the recommended course of action would be to take advantage of the chaos and take whatever you want.  You can sack and burn down cities, steal whatever you like, and simply avoid confrontation and staged battles with an otherwise distracted military.

If I was running the invasion, I’d basically send out commando raids to start burning down every major city, as quietly as possible (make it look like criminals), so the Army isn’t looking for me.  You want to burn every soft civilian target available, live off american supplies, and quietly just make things as hard as possible on the civilians and military without letting them know you are there.

And then you are talking dark ages warfare.  Spread disease, use chemical weapons, burn down the cities, burn the crops, destroy or poison the food and water supply (simple as E.coli in some cases).  Steal everything you can.  Even a few thousand troops operating off of Q Ships with follow up support from Military ships, maybe air drop troops just to cause problems.

In a month you could have every major US city in flames, with a the civilian population starving to death, thirsty, and cold in the dark; and a military overwhelmed by too many problems, and probably not enough food even for the military.

Step 3 – Wait.

If you really do it right, you don’t let them know who did it.  Even better, populate your commando teams with third world mercenaries and terrorists…  You have decent odds at starting the dark ages, and covering the hillsides with third world terrorist arsonists and saboteurs…  Spread bio weapons and disease.

And never ever have a single citizen of you country ever set foot on US soil.  Total deniability – make it look like super terrorists instead of a state action.

Step 4 – Do what works best for you.

  • If the US collapses under it’s own weight – you could probably pull of a credible conventional invasion on “humanitarian peacekeeping” grounds, with UN support; at least after a few months and tens of millions have starved to death.
  • If the US survives, the economy, industry, and military will be in shambles, and you can basically step up as a world power to fill the vacuum left by a crumbling US dependent on humanitarian aid.

Now odds are you’d eventually get caught, and suffer reprisal from the US Navy, which has the ability to bomb most nations into the stone age even without homeland support.

But any target is vulnerable, if you know where to look, and understand science.

Nothing is uninvadable.  You just develop a strategy that exploits the weaknesses of your opponent while avoiding or redirecting it’s strengths.

So the way you conquer a nation with an unbeatable military is to attack it’s civilians, soft targets, and infrastructure using weapons that the military cannot counter, then wait for them to starve to death behind their super weapons.  You can do it with 1960’s technology, never use a gun, robot, or any science fiction.

If anybody sees any flaws or mistakes in my assessment, please let me know.

Thanks, this was a fun exercise.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Can Bruce Bueno de Mesquita predict the future?

So here’s one I first took on in Quora, and it’s a fun topic –

Can Bruce Bueno de Mesquita predict the future?

NYU Professor BBdM claims to predict international policy events with >90% accuracy in his book “The predictioneers game”. It seems grotesque, now we have a paper where he descibes his method. Can you falsify his statement?  http://irworkshop.sites.yale.edu…BBdM Ted Talk
Ted Galpin, Astrophysicist cheerleader turned professional strategist

I’ve been following Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on and off for roughly a decade.

In theory – Yes, sometimes, with limits he can predict the future (And his marketing is probably exaggerating, but he’s not really doing anything that other mathematicians are not doing, he just sells it really well).

He’s been doing this stuff since the 80’s. But I guess it took a TED talk and a Book for people to really take notice.

Here’s some context:

  • He famously was one of the earlier academics to successfully apply game theory to political science; and everybody laughed at him until he proved to be right (He predicted an “unlikely” candidate would win an Iranian election in the 1980’s; and 2 years later proved to be right, reportedly surprising the political science community). That when the Poly Sci Quantitative vs Qualitative culture wars began.
  • He consequently started selling his services to the government.
  • His models are supposed to be rational choice driven game theory models that are heavily data dependent.
  • The famous CIA quote is that a good CIA analyst can tell you a what political party should win the next election with about 80 percent accuracy.  Bruce Bueno deMesquita – BBdM could then interview the CIA analyst, populate the variables, do the math, and give you a NAME that was right 90% of the time. Technically BBdM adds precision to existing accuracy.

Good analysis give you accuracy. BBdM adds precision by using good math on top of good behavioral science. If the underlying data points you in the wrong direction, the math probably won’t change that.

  • We know from fundamentals of math that every model he builds would be custom based on available data; using a underlying algorithm that he’s been tweaking and using since the 1980’s.
  • We know from mathematical modeling 101 that the ability to predict the future is limited by available data and known patterns. That has plagued engineers and scientists for centuries.
  • The fundamental assumption in BBdM’s models is they are built on a version of rational choice theory.
  • Rational Choice theory is often applied incorrectly. It states that people usually do what is in their best interests.
    • Rational Choice theory actually means people usually do what they believe is in their best interests (from their own point of view). Important pragmatic semantic.
      • For example – you know people will order Pizza because they like Pizza, but really they should order a salad because it is much healthier.
      • Rational choice is relative to understanding the subject. Hence why it has been misused and easily critiqued in the past.
  • BBdM’s best work tops out at 90% for a few reasons:
    • 1 – Incomplete information leads to incomplete mathematical precision and accuracy. I.E. You are vulnerable to Black Swans (what you don’t know).
    • 2 – It requires you to accurately read people’s minds – this is where the knowledge of an analyst comes in. If your analysts don’t understand the psychology of the individuals, then they may guess wrong on the rational choice, and the math can’t fix that.
    • 3 – It really should be lower than 90%, I’m guessing they only pick battles they know they can win to cheat the metric – a common business practice.
  • Because the model’s are based on rational choice, BBdM can only predict decision making of people or groups of people. And only if you can identify the influencing players of the game, model the interactions of the players, the decisions they will make, and the resultant net result when you add up all the decisions based on rational choice. Basically a giant decision tree matrix.
  • Technically speaking, a good strategist with good data using the right math and the right science should be able to consistently predict the future. This is what good management consultants try to emulate.
  • If you have any doubt, I know from my business, every Billion Dollar piece of technology (think jets, mines, power plants, bridges, refineries, Sub stations, sky scrapers) is predicatively modeled on paper and in computers to make sure it is possible, will work, and to estimate cost and economics long before they spend the billions of dollars to build it (often in the form of an engineering feasibility study).
  • Any situation where you have enough science and measurement,  the appropriate math can be used to effectively predict the future. That’s what operations research has been doing for years. That’s what Gantt logic and Agile Velocity try to do with projects.

For example – In WWII German submarines where hard to sink because they went underwater when they saw planes, so it was hard to kill them with aircraft. Operations research analysts ran lots of what we now call data analytics (by hand in the 1940’s), and figured out that if you put bright lights on a bomber, it looks more like the bright blue sky, and an anti submarine bomber could get close enough to kill a submarine before it was spotted and the submarine did a crash dive. The math predicted right that time.

So given all that.

Can BBdM – Bruce Beuno de Mesquita Predict the future? Sometimes, if you ask the right kind of questions, and he can find the right input data for the math to work. He specializes in political science and the decision making of large groups. If pressed he may even be able to model and predict a stand alone complex – but that’s kind of obscure and I don’t think anyone is looking for those yet (outside of social moment and viral based marketing techniques).

But Hannah Fry could predict how riots happen in Python a few years ago (not when, but how). Operations research has made progress in future prediction for many, many decades. And Game theory is pretty old – that’s a big part of how Rand sold Mutually Assured Destruction theory and led them to purportedly recommend economic brinkmanship to end the cold war – knowing the expensive weapons being built were unlikely to be used in WWIII. And that worked, the cold war escalated to the point of bankrupting the Soviet Union with military spending. Technically we tricked them into building a military too large to economically sustain.

To answer your question – yes, you can use math to predict the future. That is sometimes, if you know the science, the math, and have the right data and analysis. That’s why engineers are correct 98% of the time, and guys like BBdM are right only 90% of the time, and only if they are careful and only pick questions they know they can answer.

Given more time – we are likely to see the rise of something analogous to the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation. Actually if you read that link – We are not that far off from that today.

As of 2016? A good Strategist working with a Good mathematician, a Good Data Scientist, a Good Operations Researcher, and a Good Behavioral Scientist should be able to predict accurately, and even maybe precisely the things we understand and know how to measure, but not the things we don’t understand, or can’t measure. And each question would take them months to answer (analyze and model), and even then it is doubtful anyone can ever beat BBdM’s claimed 90% because everybody makes mistakes and has limits.

In reality hitting 90% accuracy is crazy hard, unless you get to select your problems. In my experience “complete” models are about 80% precise (you get within 20% of what you expected) and are accurate (pointed in the right place) about 80% of the time. But getting adequate information to make a complete model is rare.

I’m guessing that BBdM gets his success by having access to the best experts and data the US Government can provide. Most good teams should be able to replicate BBdM’s results given access to that level of resources. Not easy by any means, but theoretically doable. I’ve seen comparable results in different modeling techniques in business – if you constrain the scope of the model enough, you can enhance your accuracy.

The honest take away you can get from BBdM is if you understand what someone thinks or believes in their own best self interest from their own point of view, 9 out of 10 times you should be able to predict what they will do next. Any Game theorists out there able to confirm or deny that with empirical data?

The only claim BBdM has really made is he can mathematically model that rational choice up to scale of decisions made by large populations like how nations vote in electrons. Seeing as he’s been on a sole source contract to the US Government doing that for like 20 years or more – I’m guessing he’s been doing it, and his success rate is good enough to keep him on retainer.

Interesting and very skeptical article that goes into some details here: Bueno de Mesquita’s prediction of Iran’s future – it reminds me of 5 mathematicians having 25 opinions on one topic.

Hope that was enlightening and answered the question.

-Ted S Galpin

Posted in Geopolitics, Math, Strategic Science | 2 Comments

A New Strategic Science?

A new strategic science.

That could have so many meanings.  So what do I mean?

First obviously I haven’t been publishing much on the Blog the last couple of years.  Due to a combination of things – raising a small child, some family health issues, diving in head first to help build a tech startup (which of course failed after 3 years due to a dominated strategy – a company political battle I lost.  Kids, never bet the farm on an industry bubble, especially the price of oil), and any number of distractions.

A few years older, many years smarter, and I noticed that I wrote a ton on Quora for some reason in the past couple years.  The passion never died, it just went else where.

Relative to the  new strategic science Blog – This really is my passion – so I’m getting back in to sharing.  I have goals I may or may not live up to.  But no more fear, and a new strategic science blog, we are gonna have fun with this.  It’s time.8eddd537-b668-4fcf-8f00-f012ea9d5322-original

Relative to the new strategic science discipline – been through some massive experiences, and many very cool books have gone through my mind.  Connecting lots of dots between history, practice, and industry. There is enough knowledge and empirical data out there to build a scientific discipline out of strategy.

And when you drive the art of strategy down
the knowledge funnel; and turn it into a science, a craft, where you can engineer success as much as you can engineer anything else…

That’s what I’ve been doing with my life, my career, my studies for 20 years now.

Time to share and put it into a form where others can really use it, be entertained by it, and benefit from strategy.

So I’ll be writing more, and hitting strategy on a wider variety of subjects, and having more fun with it.  Sharing the ideas and work I do elsewhere, like Quora, LinkedIn, Facebook  Because it’s what I love, and I know it can help you.

Thanks for reading,

– Ted S Galpin

Posted in Strategic Science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Strategy vs. Tactics (not what you expect)

suntzu strategy and tactics

So, I got some highly unanticipated free time, so here’s a quick run through some important fundamentals.  I don’t care what you do, mastery of the fundamentals is the key to being successful, be it sports, work, or strategy.

First the obligatory definitions, I could argue these, but for today we’ll go by what’s currently popping up on Wikipedia:

Strategy:  a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. (one could debate that strategy not just a synonym for plan, we’ll save that for another time).

tactic is a conceptual action implemented as one or more specific tasks (fair enough).

So formally speaking the text book definitions from military science and business books goes like this, a strategy is a plan that is executed via a variety of tactics.  The military goes on to say that grand tactics are large scale tactics, and grand strategy is the political strategy that provides overall direction to military strategy (i.e. terrorists bad, China OK, Canada Harmless).

Gee, that’s actually kinda boring.  So how does this help you?  Where is the salient advantage in these pedantic semantics?

First, the common sense is strategy and tactics are interchangeable words for a solution to the problem.  Strategy and tactics have a yin yang relationship in defining each other – bigger long term picture relative to immediate small scale.

Stay with me.

Tactical means winning battle today. Strategy means winning the war. But the battle had a strategy, broken up into tactics utilized by each team. But each team leader had a strategy, that was adapted in execution by a strategic utilization of appropriate tactics for the resistance and challenges faced. Yin / Yang.  Once you leave the textbook, the only difference between strategy and tactics is your perspective.  Boxers and quarterbacks have strategies for minutes worth of action. Political strategies have tactics that take months to execute.

The difference between strategy and tactics in everyday language is simply to show the short term vs long term perspectives to the task at hand.  That would make grand strategy where strategies interact, and grand tactics where different tactics interact.

So what? How does this help you? (finally there)

First, conversationally it is good to simply know the effective semantic difference between strategy and tactics.  Hopefully your now there.

Secondly, in order to be truly successful, you need to have good strategy and good tactics.  You need to understand the role of each.

Many business have good strategies, but bad tactics and can’t make the strategy happen. In Afghanistan, the US military enjoys tactical brilliance and dominance; they almost never lose a battle; but strategically Afghanistan is a decade old strategic quagmire.  Winning every battle yet to win the war.  Just like we all know well established small businesses that were tactically brilliant, did great work – but were strategically incapable of adapting to change and simply went out of business when the economy crashed.

Conversely, there is a long tradition of brilliant strategies they nobody managed to make happen.  The quote that comes to mind is “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

The simple truth is strategy and tactics are the same skill, same concept applied at different levels. That simple idea is important because you now know that a perfect strategy cannot succeed without good tactics; and brilliant tactics probably won’t deliver strategic results on their own.  When your strategies fail for lack of execution, you know there is a disconnect between the strategic and the tactical.

So when you are making your decisions, planning, preparing, and executing your vision for the future, remember that you will have to simultaneously view your struggles from both the strategic and tactical points of view in order to succeed.

And honestly, you probably need to consider the grand tactical and grand strategic views as well to make your long term life get to where you want to go.

So what does that mean?

Strategically you have one year, two year, five year, and probably ten year or longer perspective, goals, and challenges.

Tactically you have a perspective, goals and challenges for this morning, today, this week, this month.

Grand tactically you have to manage the interactions between your work tactical situation, your home and personal tactical situation. You may have multiple projects. Health or fitness goals, school, family, or relationship commitments and challenges that affect your daily tactics of that important business problem your are tactically solving now. Also there are grand tactical problems you can’t control – traffic, weather, sickness, accidents. But you have to manage the grand tactical everyday of how do I deal with a getting sick, a fender bender, find a breakfast and still keep my boss happy this morning?  At minimum you can think of grand tactical as tactical work life balance.

In terms of grand strategy, well; you need to balance work, career, business and personal strategic goals and resources, and how those strategies interact. Grand strategically you also have to consider the big picture – politics, law, the economy – things you can’t control that may have a big effect.  There is a good time and a bad time to make investments or purchase real estate – if you’re lucky you find the intersection of grand strategic opportunity with personal strategy – i.e. buy a new home after the housing bubble bursts, not before – if you have the choice.  Anybody who bought a house in 2008 either didn’t have a choice, or failed their due diligence of the housing bubble that was well understood in financial journals a year before the market crashed.

Grand strategically how do I use limited time and money to get what I want in the long term – career, family, home, car, hobby? In business grand strategy how to I balance supply chain costs with new healthcare regulation costs and changes to corporate tax code while attracting quality talent?  Those are grand strategy considerations that form the broader picture of sometimes conflicting strategic goals we have – like put in overtime for that promotion but spend more time with family.

And obviously here where we circle around.  You need tactical competence on the day to day stuff, grand tactical skill to balance conflicting priorities and limited resources, all while remembering your strategic schwerpunkt ….  Not to mention the grand strategy reality of conflicting strategies and the grand strategic environment you are in.

Now, you can ignore these truths and keep muddling through the way you like.  Or you can try to organize your mind and efforts in terms of the tactical, grand tactical, strategic, and grand strategic – and see if that perspective helps you improve how you manage priorities and get things done, considering short term opportunities within the context of long term goals and strategic constraints out of your control.

Yes, thinking like a strategist can and probably will give you a headache.  I recommend you start by writing things down. As I’ve learned, if you don’t write it down, it never happened.

That’s enough for today.  Thanks for reading, hope it helps.  Let me know.

– Ted Galpin SPP

Posted in Strategy, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

TED, FRY, Complexity, Systems and Strategy

First in a series on prediction.  I hope.

Today is a simple if abstract discussion.  The math of strategy.  Now the majority of my peers at ASP specifically avoid the quantitative, and most strategists I’ve encountered are  MBA’s, historians, or soldiers that are not that keen on math, and don’t have much use for it beyond the simple arithmetic of “our big number beats their little number.” (which isn’t even always true).

Hannah Fry TED Talk

TED, FRY, Complexity, Systems and Strategy

By now, many of us are familiar with TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, Design).  Personally I was chagrined when I found out Ted.com was taken.  But at least it’s being put to good use.

The TED talks are about “Ideas worth Sharing.”  They started out very cool, and have gotten more commercialized over time, but more often than not, are fascinating; if typically very focused on technology (due to their silicon valley roots).  There are also independently organized TEDX talks that really embody the “diamond in the rough” meme that started TED.  It’s a great place to see well communicated ideas.

The other day on my lunch hour I happened upon a TEDx Talk from Britain that well, hit my sensibilities as a physicist, mathematician, and strategist squarely.

FRY?

Dr Hannah Fry, according to her website, is a “Dr. of Fluid Dynamics, researcher of Complexity Theory and all round bad-ass.”  If you take a look at her PhD Thesis, it’s 200 pages of graduate level mathematics that pretty well qualify her self description (As do her blogs posts on Python scripting).

OK, enough background.  SO what?

Point is, Dr Fry did a really well developed TEDx Talk earlier this year that demonstrates in layman’s terms the power of modern mathematics.  Specifically they created a mathematical model given available information and science that accurately recreates what happened in the 2011 London Riots, and appears to predict the behaviour of riots.

Complexity

OK, I’m biased.  I’m an astrophysicist that does quantitative analysis of business intelligence and project planning and execution for a living.  My pile of books to read at home includes math texts on catastrophe theory, game theory, and complexity theory.  But I confess that it was John Mauldin that first showed me the value of applying complexity theory to strategic thinking.

Here’s how Math works.  Your classical physics and math is great for directly predicting simple things.  This is the majority of everyday engineering and construction.  We can accurately mathematically predict how well engineered machines and processes will work before we build them (e.g. machines, electronics, factories).  We can use math to measure and control the consumption of measurable quantities, be is Gas in our cars, grams of protein for athletes, sales revenue, market share or money in our bank accounts.  But you are limited by what you can measure, and it has to be “simple” mathematically speaking.

2 Problems.
1 – There are many things you can’t measure.
2 – Some  problems require you to measure too many things.

Now in the 20th century, science got around some of those problems by using statistics (i.e. simple pattern recognition).  We can mathematically model and predict how huge systems work if their behavior is simple when treating them as a whole.  This works for things like galaxies, stars, gases, explosions, fluids, water, etc.  I don’t need to track every molecule of water in a pipe, just the sum of its parts and everything works out.

The problem is the middle ground.  A complex system is something that has too many variables to measure and solve simply; and not consistent enough to treat as a single simple whole (i.e. a business, a war, the economy).

Now in the 21st century (with the help of computers), complexity theory is starting to get good.  Researchers like Dr Fry are starting to create mathematical models that accurately reproduce and potentially predict the behavior of real life complex systems, using rationality and complex math.   This is possible by basing the model by adapting existing models that work in analogous scientific systems.

For example assume:

How viruses spread = How information spreads
Shopping travel habits = Rioting Travel habits
Predator Prey movement = Rioter / Police movement

Adapt those three models into a single predictive model, and they actually do model and predict how fast, how long, and where riots will spread; based on input conditions and changing variables.  The model is roughly as accurate as the input data, and does a good job of recreating riots that have happened.  But even here, the precision and accuracy of the model is based on how many measurements you can put in.  Historical data plus known science becomes a constraint on future prediction.  That’s mathematical modeling 101, at least it was when I was in college.

Notice business kids,  they use the known science of shopper behavior to accurately predict how rioters behave.  Personally I had forgotten there was a science to shopper behavior.  Point – there is tons of data and science out there, if you take the time to find it (there nothing new under the sun, odds are somebody else already knows the solution to your problem).

Systems

So at this point, ya’ll are saying, cool Ted.  So some math geeks can do some math that models a riot.  So what?

Ok kids.  Any organization; a family, an army, an NGO, government or business is a system of interrelated parts that exchange information and resources to accomplish a variety of activities to accomplish organizational goals while also doing activities it needs to do to survive.  E.G.  A Family may go on vacation – focusing on logistics, travel and entertainment, but still have to deal with tactical needs of food, shelter, sleep, and family politics plus the long term requirements like bills, insurance, and a home.

A business may be focused on selling it’s product, with the normal cycle of R&D, Marketing, supply chain, manufacturing it’s product – but also has to have HR, Legal, Accounting, Facilities, IT, Taxes, and possibly PR and Lobbying to support the simple goal of building and selling a product.

Point is – all the functions of the business form a system of relationships that exchange information and resources in a constant and definable way.  Time sheets feed accounting so they can do payroll, but need charge numbers on the time sheets to feed financial cost controls and bucket costs for filing taxes.  These are mathematically speaking, complex systems like what Dr. Fry works with.

Hopefully, the system thing is making sense.  System, ecosystem – simply a collection of processes that flow resources and information through the organization to accomplish what needs to happen.  Working in an Engineering firm, I see plenty of technical process flow diagrams for things like refineries and power plants – and the methods are the same as when we are doing business processes.  There is a reason why there is a whole “systems thinking” movement in management consulting.  It’s accurate to the real world, and works when done well.  I was amazed when I started studying business strategy, all these cyclical strategy frameworks were almost identical to a standard engineering control theory.

Funny to me at least, I bring up that point at an ASP meeting fully of strategy consultants that developed these business strategy frame works, and they are honestly ignorant of their parallel development of the existing engineering science that is many decades old.

Well, kids, there is a math to your organization’s system.  And an easier paradigm than complexity theory.  Google the term “topology”.  It’s a branch of mathematics developed to study shapes; but what topology really does is map the relationships of different groups with different functions.  Which means two relevant things.  1 – there is a math for quantitatively modeling the relationships; i.e. the flows of information, resources, and processes within your organization.  And that math is also the math of databases; so if you can find someone willing to learn the theory of a homeomorphism (one to one vs. one to many relationships),  you can have a model or framework for understanding exactly how to map the system of processes of your organization; and even use it to streamline the series of databases that IT already maintains to try and manage that existing system via IT based business intelligence (ERP).   This allows you to data mine your big data intelligently if you understand the topology, the relationships between how different sets of data interact.

Then to miss Fry’s point.  If you can find some graduate students in complexity theory, you can model the behavior of your organization’s processes  and accurately and precisely predict how they will react under different scenarios.  You can take what good managers do instinctively, and improve on it.

Now, let’s be honest.  The vast majority of us have not studied graduate level mathematics like complexity or topology.  But you don’t really need to do formal math to be effective.  Math is just the science of patterns and relationships.  It’s built on rules and numbers.  But the rules work without the numbers (accurately if not precisely).

If you can understand the difference between a one to one and a one to many relationship, and notice that a pattern of a one week delay in supply chain results in a two week delay and cost in manufacturing –  You can sketch out some simply process flow diagrams to model the systems of your organization, and see the patterns of what goes right, what goes wrong, and will have a legitimate engineered approach to troubleshooting and understanding what goes right and what goes wrong.  It works for plants filled with a billion dollars of machinery, it can work for your organization filled with people doing various interdependent functions working towards team production.

Learn the concepts, and it can paradigm shift your ability to understand and solve problems.  If you can define and recognize the consistent patterns of your organization, you can predict how changes will affect those patterns.

Strategy

So what?

We covered, well, a lot in a small space.  I obviously have too much applied math to get of my chest.

Dr Fry can’t tell you when a riot will happen.  But she can tell you how a riot will happen. That allows for some very precise scenario planning.  Be ready for an event or change before it happens.  And honestly, scenario planning has been around for decades.  Even going through the act of inaccurate scenario planning prepares the participants for change – orients them to better understanding the patterns of an organization and how they react to change.

If you understand the patterns, you have a chance at anticipating, managing and changing them.

Example

Here’s the math free example of applying the math of understanding patterns of behaviour and relationships.  Charles Duhigg wrote a very useful book called the Power of Habit.  He thinks in terms of habits and the behavioural triggers that cause them.  Which is simple math: Trigger = Habitual Behaviour; only gets more complex as you see how a system of habits as a process in a population.

So what?  Well, how’s this for problem solving.  Some years back, Mr. Duhigg spent some time in Iraq during the war.  In the city he was in, the Army had a problem that every evening people would gather in the town square, protest, and there were some riots.

Over a few several days, Army leadership observed the habits – people didn’t show up to riot.  The town square was also a market.  People arrived to shop, ate dinner, and then were already gathered in the evening.  Trouble simply ensued after dinner.

Solution? The Army Major tasked to solve the problem simply banned kebab stands from the town square.

So at the end of the day, people in the town square got hungry, went to find food, and left the square.  Ended violent protests and riots with zero force, no violence, no death.

Charles Duhigg rightly calls that the power of Habit.  Someone like Dr. Fry would likely call that an elegant solution by simply understanding the equation, and changing a variable to zero.  I simply call it good strategy.

Dry Fry may be able to predict the pattern of a riot.  In one instance, Charles Duhigg witness an Army officer able to identify the pattern and disrupt it, and prevented the riots from happening.  In other words, he successfully predicted the conditions needed for a riot.  They can do that because in there own way, they do the math to understand why things happen the way they do.

The lessons here are simple:

  • You can’t predict the future (unless you are very well informed and good at game theory, then you can a little – but we’ll leave that for next week.)
  • But if you can identify predictable patterns of behaviour for a system of relationships ( e.g. an organization), you can predict how that behaviour will happen; e.g. Dry Fry and her complexity models that show how riots happen.
  • The better the math (pattern recognition), the more precise the model.  But even simple models can yield accurate and useable predictive results for patterns of behavior.
  • You can use a system map or process diagram to identify the relationships and patterns of your organization.  That will give you a framework for predicting the patterns of your organization.
  • If you can predict how your organization will respond to change, you can prepare for and manage that change.  Whether a change in the market, or any deliberate strategic change to the organization driven by leadership.  If you know how the organization works as a system of processes, you can deliberately engineer the desired results.

And the big points

  • You know change is coming. You know the world is not standing still.  This is a tool that can help you be ready for change, and respond and change your organization and it’s system of processes in a faster and more appropriate way.  Simply put, an appreciation of math combined with some leg work, and you can adapt faster and better than your competition.
  • Yes kids, this is another approach to process improvement.
  • Even better – If you can do that internally with your organization, you can probably also map the system of processes for your value chain, supply chain, market, competition, etc.  And get the same sort of feel for predicting and appreciating changes external to your company. Allowing you to adapt your external view and relationships just like the internal above.
  • Even better, if you take the time to understand how things work in the world, you may be able to manipulate (influence) the process to get results more in your favor.  I.E. it may be possible to alter a riot in progress, or a market shift to change the outcome predicted by the model, and achieve a more desirable outcome.

You can’t predict when events will happen, but you can be ready with a good response for when they do.  Yeah, it’s basically the boy scout motto.  But there is legitimate math that can help you manage the problems that are too big to measure, and too unpredictable to treat simply.

By rigorous study of the math of the patterns, we can learn them, and that allows us to predict, adapt to, and potentially disrupt, prevent or improve those patterns.

If you understand the patterns of conflict, you have the potential to predict, adapt and manipulate it to a more desirable result.

And in my mind, that is what strategy is all about.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading my pedantic rant on math.

-Ted Galpin SPP

 

 

Posted in Business Strategy, Games, Math, Military Strategy, Strategy | 1 Comment

The Strategy Book

Leo over at Zen Habits is suggesting I would be happier if I write more.  He’s probably correct.

So here’s a story boys and girls… (And usual rules apply, keep Google handy for my obscure references, html links go stale too fast)

About a year ago, an interesting gentleman named Max McKeown apparently found my inconsistent effort here, saw some value, and asked me to read and review a book he’d written.  I accepted, and he graciously sent me a free copy of the book.  It coincidentally arrived on my birthday.

Of course as I said, that was a year ago.  Max, I am very sorry it took a year, but I’m finally fulfilling my end of the bargain.  Thanks for the cool book!

So as I said, the book showed up in the mail (via Amazon I think).  Of course I had just bought a house, after starting a new job.  Not to mention the normal stress of toddler chaos, etc.  As Aaron Allston once wrote – you have to know what the timing is good for.  Well the timing was terrible.  Took me about 6 months to read the book, mostly on my lunch hour at the office.  I’ve probably reread half the chapters twice.  Actually started at least 4 different versions of this article in the last 9 months.  There’s a draft on Google docs, one on wordpress IPhone app, and another in my Awesome notes app, probably a draft or two sitting in my email.  Not to mention copious notes scribbled in the margins and the inside book cover.

But here’s the two lessons learned that are pretty obvious to an outside observer.  I was way too over committed at the time I made the commitment.  But It’s never to late to try, try again.  You’ll never finish if you don’t try.

So, I read and carefully Image result for the strategy bookreread and considered Max McKeown’s Strategy Book for the better part of a year.

It’s a good book.  Based on what I could find in a little bit of open source intelligence (i.e. online research); Max is a English writer, consultant, academic and thought leader type with a collection of graduate degrees in Business Strategy.  You can find him on You Tube, Wikipedia, and Twitter, but no TED Talk yet.  He appears to like black leather jackets and presents wearing t shirts.

Hence, his Strategy Book is informal and well focused on business strategy; though I would argue many of it’s lessons are applicable to strategic science in general.

Now, I preface my critique by saying I’m a serious wonk.  Just a few days ago I went on my first after dark baby sitter date since my daughter was born.  My wife took me to a presentation / reception with the NASA Team that just finished a 5 year research project on Saturn’s moon Titan.  I wished they had been more technical, but it was a general audience of about 200 people, so I instead acted like a giddy teenager.

So when I say Max’s book is light and easy to read, but lacks scientific rigor; that’s the opinion of a physicist.  Many of you will adore the fact that Max uses plain language and an organized format to explain and validate dozens of basic concepts of strategy without any mathematics or science; but with a good dose of real life examples and anecdotes from the business world.

I personally view the book as fundamentals of business strategy.  Max obviously knows what he is talking about.  The book is an excellent business strategy 101.  And it has a place on my bookshelf as such.  It distills the state of strategy practice as known by western business schools.  It was very reminiscent of everything I saw taking my Strategic Planning Professional exam a couple years ago.

The book does not cover much else.  You have to get past the normal consultant / thought leader fluff in the beginning.  The examples talk about products and services, customers and market competition.  You will not find math, game theory, economics, military science, behavioral science, or really any straight science.  It’s simply good, solid business school strategy.  Which makes it accessible and digestible to a wide audience, and Max does show a level of sophistication with his craft.  I found myself nodding my head up and down through most of the book.  It’s a valuable read.

I wish it had been more technical and more precise in many places.  But that was not the purpose of the book, nor it’s writer.  It’s a business guy talking business strategy.  No more, no less.

Every Chapter is formatted with a stated objective, the context of the objective, the challenges involved, how to recognize / measure success of implementing the objective, and the potential limits and pitfalls involved.  The 235 pages walk you through understanding strategy as a subject, how to internalize strategy in yourself, create and implement it in a business organization; and a collection of his favorite business strategy tools like SWOT, Porter’s 5 forces, various idea maps, visualization matrices, and processes that he has had success with.  It’s a Strategy MBA in a single book, with a decent index.

And the best part is he gives plenty of advice on how the reader, likely not being an executive, but likely an analyst or middle manager can navigate corporate culture to make use of the knowledge of the book.  Yes kids, there is some good wisdom in the pages too.  He has a chapter entitled “Understanding what can go wrong.” He spends time on the fact the strategy is change management.  If you can get your mind outside the box, it covers layman’s strategy well and can be useful for most decision making and problem solving, especially where you face a group dynamic (friends, family, organizations, and businesses).

Most business strategy books are trying to sell a theory, process, or system.  Max chose to give us a useful broad reference instead.  And he intentionally filled every topical chapter with thought provoking questions intended to guide your own critical thinking process, and teach you how to think like a strategist.

As I said, It’s a good, educational book.  You can find it on Amazon or at http://www.maxmckeown.com/   Paper back only, which has a cool slick polymer finish that feels good in my hands, but couldn’t find it on Kindle.  Sorry Kids.

After writing this, I think I’ll read The Strategy Book again after I finish The Japanese Art of War, something Thomas Cleary wrote that I have to reread whenever I get caught in my own OODA Sprial, something that appropriately describes my past 2 years.  Which is another lesson learned; it doesn’t matter how much they pay you, a painful job is a painful job, no amount of money can change that.

So if you want a good read in business strategy 1o1, Max McKeown wrote the book for you.

That’s all I got today.  Thanks for reading,

Ted Galpin, SPP

 

Posted in Book Review, Business Strategy | Tagged | Leave a comment

And we’re back – with some thoughts on the OODA Spiral

Just short on my lunch break, but had some fascinating side discussions helping out with the strategic planning for ironically the Association of Strategic Planning (ASP).

(Warning, on a reread this is heavy wonk on esoteric terminology, and I’ve found hyperlinks outside the blog to reference ideas expire and then do little good, keep google handy).

I was pondering the idea of combining Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s game theory approaches  with proactive OODA loops.  An idea that I have played with for years, my father started calling an OODA Spiral.  If Observe, Orient, Decide, Act is a good scientific model for human / mammal decision making….

Then it possible to get “looped.”  Literally things are happening faster than you can keep up, and the world passes you by, at least for a moment.  Happens to me allot when I am trying to do something while my Wife and Daughter compete for my attention.  Invariably I get looped by to much information and burn my breakfast on Saturday morning.  I would argue that getting looped, or a lock of the decision cycle is generally what happens to a quarterback right before he gets sacked.  Can’t make a decision fast enough, and somebody else ends the play for him.  Read:  “Looped” = Decision lock = a stalled or interrupted OODA cycle.  You get stuck on observe and orient, can’t decide and act fast enough.

SO a decision spiral is when a decision making process gets looped, and more information / things happening just loop again and again into a spiral of inaction.  That would be what the US military calls “Shock and Awe”.  If there is more happening than you can deal with, you loose the ability to make decisions until the world slows down enough that you can orient to it.

The Game theory aspect of it it simply knowing what people will focus on, and if you can loop them, trap them in an OODA spiral they no longer can make make actions that effect you – at least as long as you can keep them in a spiral.  Talk about taking initiative.

That’s the idea anyway.  Let me know what you think.

The concept that hit me talking with my friends at ASP, was that in organizational strategic planning, i.e. strategic planning for a business; a decision spiral could be related to the common phenomena of strategic plans that sit on a shelf and never get implemented.

This goes back to my old post on OODA loops and the tyranny of the urgent killing any schwerpunkt one might have.  So busy fighting off alligators you forget you are in the swamp to drain it, not fight alligators.  In business, most of the executives I know are so busy fire fighting, caught up in tactical urgency, they never have time for anything strategic.

That’s pretty well established.  But think of that in terms of an organizational OODA spiral. The environment is changing faster than the organizational decision cycle can react, and eventually they give up trying to constantly reorient.  They don’t even figure out how to orient to a strategic plan they spent resources developing, they just see lots of change and work that is hard to understand, and the whole company joins in a stand alone complex of work on tactical urgency, maintaining the status quo…  Instead of making strategic decisions and actions that would remove or preempt the tactical problems.  The whole organization gets trapped in an OODA spiral.

Apologies – A stand alone complex – concept from a show called Ghost in the Shell.  Basically a stand alone complex is a simple idea empowered by the information age.  Given the same information, people tend to make the same decision.  Give the same information in the form of tweets and TV to a few million kids on twitter, you get brand based social moments and the Arab spring.  A stand alone complex is a simple consequence of game theory.  Viral information that inspires action in a significant part of the population, that all individually come to the same orientation, decision, and action from the same or similar observation.  That is a stand alone complex.

So what?

OK.  Many esoteric ideas add up to what?

The short version is simply this.  If we know the root cause of a problem, we can engineer a solution.  If strategy rarely if ever gets implemented in businesses because of a stand alone complex in the form of an OODA spiral, at least among leader ship.  Then the solution is to not let leadership get looped.  Prevent the  OODA Spiral.  Traditionally in strategic planning that means the executive decision maker simply makes the decision and then coerces action down the chain of command to make change and implement strategy.

But there have got to be other ways than brute force, right?  Can a strategy professional influence a CEO, Board, or group of senior decision makers in such a way to prevent the OODA spiral that prevents them from implementing a strategic plan once they have it?

I’m thinking yes.  Change management before the Change? More on that later

Thanks for reading the Lunch Time analysis.

-Ted S Galpin SPP

 

 

 

Posted in Business Strategy, Math, Strategy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Motives, Managing Expectations, Alignment and Friction.

So, been gone for a very long time.

Explanation – life is what happens while you are making other plans.  Survived the “new normal” economy.  New day job, new house, lots of new changes.

First a good strategic lesson I just picked up from a really popular blog:  The Art of Non-Conformity

“…one important fact: it is always very important to carefully examine someone’s motives in communicating.

Whenever you read something, ask yourself, “What are the author’s motivations? Why did he or she choose to devote a great deal of time and effort to one particular thing in exclusion of others?”

Good lesson from Chris Guillebeau.  Why am I doing this?  Because writing about strategy helps me understand it.  And I love strategy and want to understand it better.  Sharing it helps because other people read what I say, let me know when I’m wrong, challenge my assumptions, and help me learn.

So, I was speaking of new changes in my life.

Including a paradigm shift here at Strategic Science.  This started out as my rather ambitious goal of putting out well researched, well edited and referenced technical essays on strategy on a consistent basis.  That takes way too many hours.  Obviously not a realistic goal.  But I did get a surprising amount of very positive feedback for my efforts.   And since noticed I’ve still spent an inordinate amount of time writing about strategy.  Just that half of it went to a couple of friends in email, and the rest sits in a filing cabinet full of notes…

Not an effective strategy.  I got OODA Looped by a combination of unrealistic expectations and normal distraction caused by life, family, career, kids.

So to apply lessons learned.  It’s easy to lose sight of strategic goals when urgency ends up trumping priority.  Or in this case tactical (short term) needs trumps strategic (i.e. long term goals).  And one of my long term goals is to use this tool as a way to build a strategy body of knowledge.

So going forward, probably less technical rigor – but hopefully more than a couple posts a year.

Today’s lessons to share.  “It is always very important to carefully examine someone’s motives in communicating.

But to go beyond the obvious, do that with yourself.  Carefully examine your motives in what you are doing.  Are your actions, tactics, methods strategically aligned with your goals?  Mine were not, and I’m the strategy geek.  Sure, there are mitigating circumstances that impede strategy.  Clausewitz and the United States Marine Corps call that strategic friction “That which makes the seemingly simple extremely difficult.”

Strategic alignment is a no brainer right?  You need to focus on your schwerpunkt, balance urgency with strategic priority, and keep your actions aligned with your schwerpunkt.  As Myomoto Mushashi wrote “Do nothing useless.”

But plan for friction.  It will happen.  If you’re at war or in construction the obvious friction will be weather and logistics.  If your executing strategy in business, your obvious friction will be budget and culture; or as Stephen Haines liked to say, “The Shark of culture eats strategy every time.”

Plan on friction, or you will make the same mistake I made for the last two years.  Scroll down the blog and you’ll see the results made by underestimating strategic friction.  You may get by for awhile, but don’t be surprised when you get bogged down.

 

Posted in Business Strategy, Military Strategy, Self Help, Strategy, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The coolest thing I’ve seen all year (AI)

Hi there world.

First – A warning to all you young turks out there gearing up to change the world. It will vary with circumstances, but infants are resource consuming schwerpunkts, that will make it difficult to finish any other projects (Apologies for the slow trickle of articles).

Teaser – the lead in is a little long, but the topic is recent developments in AI managed strategy.

On to the topic at hand. As a Strategy geek, growing up I spent inordinate amounts of time playing strategy games. As with many this fascination started out with Chess and Axis and Allies, but quickly moved on the the likes of Herzog Zwei, Star Control, and Star Wars: Rebellion… Leading to a long list occasionally continuing now with distractions like Sins of a Solar Empire. I learned all about resource management, maneuver and misdirection, and the limits of computer interface and computer opponents. My pipe dream for years has been an in game macro building interface that would allow me to automate repetitive tasks and coordinate complicated tasks requiring multiple commands issued simultaneously; like coordinating multi vector combined arms assault. Something nearly impossible to pull off with a mouse and keyboard, hot key, click, drag and drop interface.

I digress. The standard in real time strategy (RTS) games is Blizzard’s franchise StarCraft. Published in 1998, it’s still heavily played and the subject of multiple professional leagues (mostly in South Korea) despite it’s sequel being released last year (something I’ve avoided, my time being stretched too thin already).

StarCraft is simply the standard because it’s known as the most refined, polished, and accessible yet complex RTS game available, with arguably the best game balance. A reputation made possible by years of constant user feedback and updates to an initially best of class software.

So what? Star Craft is nothing new. Cool, but basically just a good diversion. Though many would argue that due to the sophistication of the game, it does make a good laboratory for experimenting with strategy and tactics. Personally I’ve successfully been able to use it to play with concepts like Shock & Awe, OODA Loops, using psychology against human players; and geometry and pattern recognition against AI (artificial intelligence or computer programed) opponents. One of the limits I found with the AI in StarCraft (and pretty much every other game I’ve played), is eventually, if you survive long enough, it seems like the AI reaches the end of it’s script, and basically falls asleep into a passive state. In Star Craft it only takes a few hours; even playing against 7 AI players, I know if I can last about 3 hours the AI will slow down and give me a chance to take them out one by one. In newer RTS games it may take longer, but inevitably I found in playing AI opponents, if I can set up a strong defense and economy; I can basically wait for the AI script (or scripts for multiple opponents) to run out and go passive on me (something I found by accident in Sins of A Solar Empire, this can take 30 hours, but a good defense will last if you leave the game running while you sleep and go to work). Then winning the game is easy. Now the same tends to work with human opponents, typically after hours of play they get tired and sloppy, resorting to attrition (especially late on Friday nights), and even the best players will make mistakes and give you opportunities if you can wear them down or confuse them.

Which brings me to the coolest thing I’ve seen this year. I was looking online to see if my theory on AI scripts running out was correct. During that search I unexpectedly stumbled into the Coolest Thing I’ve seen in at least a year.

Apparently the University of California Santa Cruz has a thriving AI research program in computer science; and when the StarCraft API was made available to the public in 2009, and a new opportunity was quickly recognized. You could create a stand alone AI player program that could control StarCraft through the API. In the spirit of Deep Blue and Chess AI, they decided to take AI research to the next level by organizing a StarCraft AI game competition. Chess is hard because you have to consider all moves and see the future, but the moves are limited. AI playing Poker is mostly a matter of probability. Go is harder because you have many more pieces and more moves to consider, but you can always see the whole board. In Star Craft you have to deal with all of the above, plus the fog or war (i.e. the unknown areas of the game you can’t see), resource management, and the rock paper scissors limitations of different units in battle. And you have to do all this in real time, the other players don’t have to wait to take their turn. They can keep making moves while you are still making a decision. Until now, all AI research done with RTS has been limited to buggy, open source home made games with their own host of issues. For the first time AI research has access to a reliable and refined commercially developed RTS software for research.

To quote an AI instructor at Berkley “I can literally walk down the list of concepts we cover and show you where every one of them show up in StarCraft and in our agent.”

So simply put, programing an AI to play Star Craft is not only a legitimate activity for research in computer science and artificial intelligence, but there are multiple professional leagues on different continents that can provide highly ranked players to test the AI against.

So it’s great for computer science research, and yeah, programing a computer to play a real time strategy game is fun. But what does this have to do with strategy?

AI is already here
Forces you to formalize the basics
It gives you a lab to experiment in
Lessons learned
A Culture of Innovation
My Wish List

AI is already here

As a Strategist, the concept of Artificial intelligence is a fun idea. If I program a computer correctly, can it execute strategy for me? My early lament in college was simply just to have a macro script interface for Star Craft, so I could automate repetitive and predictable tasks; like resource gathering and scouting; not to mention more easily coordinate the actions of a hundred units better. Hot keys help to speed up a mouse and keyboard interface, but it’s almost impossible to really manage a good Cannae style pincer moment clicking a mouse as fast as you can ordering a few units at a time.

But the potential is there. That type of automated strategy is already present in the stock market. You can look at price history of stocks, and where the price changes go from a relatively smooth curve of deliberate human decision changing to the saw tooth up and down of algorithm based trading is really obvious; especially to my friends that engineer industrial controls systems where you see the same phenomena. Computers react faster, and typically more decisively. They trade stocks, run industrial equipment, and keep our power, communications, and financial infrastructure running reliably, by reacting faster and taking in far more information with more precise memory than a human operator. The limit being they don’t yet think, and for the most part automated control systems, typically SCADA based, can only deal with situations they are programed for. Anything weird happens, in a hedge fund or an industrial control circuit; the computer doesn’t think, it defaults to a human operator to make the hard choices. Now when it comes to keeping the lights on and the value of my 401k, I’m glad they are not experimenting with artificial intelligence that can out perform human decision making; the price of mistakes is too high.

But in a game? A video game play tested for over a decade to be arguably the best available real time strategy environment? I though a computer playing Jeopardy was Cool, but the guys at IBM got to have all the fun. Now I have a playground for testing AI. I have a playground for testing Strategy. Best of all, I have a playground for testing AI controlled tactics and strategy. And there is a formal competition where I can compete against my peers. Makes it easy to figure out what theoretical strategic fundamentals are needed, and which aren’t. You can measure, record, replay. All the things you can’t do in the real world that makes after action analysis so much the purview of opinion and guess work as much as fact.

Forces you to formalize the basics

The military strategy community is working on ideas like 4th Generation Warfare, 5th Generation warfare, asymmetric warfare, swarming, and network centric warfare. An exercise like the StarCraft AI Competition forces the participants “back to basics” especially in terms of strategy. They couldn’t just program in tactics and maneuvers. Given the rules of the game, they had to invent decision making and management software to obtain and manage resources; i.e. the had to start with logistics. Then teach software to scout out targets, have a memory and then decide what to invest your resources in, and what resources to use against what targets.

But the point is they had to start from scratch and do everything. Formalize the computer basics of logistics and resource planning into computer algorithms; before the computer could even build an army to maneuver. Strategy doesn’t get more fundamental than that. They can’t ignore anything as details to be handled later by subordinates, there are no givens. Every behavior has to be programmed in, and when they miss something, it was readily apparent in testing as a weakness that was exploited by an opponent.

It gives you a lab to experiment in.

It gives you a laboratory to test your theories against both theoretical AI frameworks, and test against expert human players, to validate or prove the theories wrong. Once you get the fundamentals down, you can still fine tune them, test them hundreds of times quickly to see what the algorithm is missing. And as the AI gets more sophisticated, you can layer and prioritize different techniques and theories in the program, and see what works, and what doesn’t.

The academically built parametric models used for AI research and military defense planning simply are not as sophisticated or refined as the millions of man hours that have gone into StarCraft. This is a far better Sandbox than we’ve ever seen before. Powerful, sophisticated technology that’s already built and very affordable. A Strategy Theoretician’s dream come true. Now I just need to work on my programming skills.

Lessons learned

The UC Team, creators of the Berkley Overmind AI that won the first competition in 2010 has shared it’s experiences in many places online.

The learning experiences from the first competition are note worthy to the larger practice of strategy. Static scripted plans just didn’t work, they were easy to out maneuver or disrupt. Strategies had to be flexible and able to adapt. Creating “agents” or sub processes in the AI to handle different responsibilities and decision making was the next step. They had to create list of responsibilities, an org chart, and division of responsibility. And they each had to be flexible and interactive to respond to the ever changing competitive environment. Just like a modern business or army.

They gave the computer a series of schwerpunkts for different situations, and let the AI decide when to do what based on the current conditions. Just like the practice of letting middle management/ tactical commanders dictate their own tactics to achieve their objectives.

Most of the AI development was spent purely on resource planning and management.

When It came to combat strategy, they were already short on time, so they picked Zerg Mutalisks, a very versatile and affordable air unit to base their entire offense on. They programmed the Mutalisks to fly in groups, and gave them essentially a vector field that pushed them to attack targets, and push away from danger. Using several clever techniques to fine tune the vector field and teach the agent target selection resulted in an expertly executed hit and run cycling swarm that picked off the most dangerous enemies first while avoiding enemy attacks. A level of tactical control I could never pull off with my mouse.

But their offensive strategy was simple. Find the easiest to use weapon available, and figure out of to maximize it’s potential. Simple strategy executed by very refined and simple yet effective tactics. Not really different from Pepsi selling cola or WD40 selling cans of lubricant. Pick something simple and reliable, and just get really good at it. The refinement was done by programming a game that ran multiple iterations of encounters with the vector field at different settings and letting the AI experiment and use metrics to optimize the settings. Trying different settings, measuring results, and applying lessons learned (conceptually close to Six Sigma).

Target selection in the end was a simple matter of predicting return on investment (ROI) – another empirical exercise. If the cost of engaging a target outweighed the benefit, don’t attack. The trick was developing the values of different behaviors; and the trade off between tactical advantage versus strategic outcome. Once developed, the computer automatically analyzes all known targets and engages the targets that have the best strategic effect (as weighted by the values programmed in) while avoiding battles it can’t win until it has more resources to take on harder targets of value. If set up correctly, it will allow the AI to ignore unimportant targets of opportunity (red herrings) in favor of strategic targets. Again, something that is hard to manage when you only have one set of eye keeping track of hundreds of units on the map.

Path Planning. One lingering bug StarCraft has; when left to their own devices, units on the move can get stuck on walls or in corners, especially when traveling long distances. For a human player this is a small annoyance, but for an AI, it meant they had to develop their own agent to plan and control the path and movement of units. Once they had Path Planning, they combined that with the danger avoidance agent, and they could have multiple scouts constantly traveling around the battlefield, with good situational awareness given by crossing lots of terrain, but high survivability from being able to avoid known and suddenly appearing danger.

With that high level of situational awareness, the resource planner is able to adapt resource planning and prioritization based on the behavior and resources of other players. (i.e. If an opponent starts building air power, you need air defense and vice versa.)

And danger aware path planning and high situational awareness also allowed the hit and run swarms to circumvent patrols and penetrate small gaps in defenses and quickly wipe out strategic targets before opponents could respond. This level of awareness is kept in a precise database giving a more exact awareness than the limited attention and memory that forces a Human player to act on memory and instinct.

Purely by following what made sense in programming the AI for the competition; the Berkley Overmind Team developed a network centric swarm that won the competition over other strategies. Which repeats similar research done in the defense community by Rand and others. Makes you wonder if anybody on the Berkley Overmind team was aware of network centric warfare or not. I’d love to ask that question.

A Culture of Innovation

In terms of AI. The first obvious innovation is seen in the results of the competition. Many AI’s were able to utilize and defend against many of the unconventional tactics used in professional play; but also showed unexpected adaptation and decision making to unexpected situations and strategies.

Within the somewhat limited environment of StarCraft, the AI’s had managed to make decisions and successfully solve problems using a mixture of processes and procedures. Businesses would be so lucky to be so effective and efficient in their decision making. Given a clear set of rules and relationships, the computer was able to succeed in surprising ways. Or as one article put it, “Most interesting of all, the contain-harass-expand strategy was a completely emergent behavior.”

Secondly, one of the articles mentioned going forward, after the competition they will be publishing the source codes of the AI’s as part of the proceedings of the conference. The idea being that each year the competitors will be standing on the shoulders of the giants from the previous year; instead of reinventing the wheel every year you get an innovative and escalating arms race. In a few years, I’d expect to see some very sophisticated AI’s simply because each competition is building on the previous year’s work.

My Wish List

Well, first I’d love the chance to play some of these AI’s. In fact if I was one of the teams, I’d be tempted to set up a server that people could connect to and play. While there is a potential counter intelligence concern there, the amount you could learn by looking at replays would really improve your learning curve, especially if you have a learning AI playing a variety of human players.

Second, I’d love to participate in the competition somehow. But given how rusty my limited programming skills are, and how limited my time is already; I doubt I could produce a work product comparable to what dozens of university students can produce over the course of a year. But as an avid Star Craft Player and more importantly Strategy Researcher, I’d happily do pro bono consulting just to get to participate in such a cool experiment.

Ghost Tactics

Combining their hit and run behavior, threat tracking, path planning, and scouting used by Berkley’s Overmind AI gives a wonderful view of the battle space where you put your strengths precisely against the enemies weaknesses. This would make Sun Tzu proud.

It also is a variation of one of my favorites from the Strategy Bag of tricks.

In the book Conventions of War: Dread Empires Fall by Walter Jon Williams, the Author postulates a space navy tactical method co developed by 2 characters; called either the “Martinez Method” or “Ghost Tactics”. Is actually a very similar concept if a little more sophisticated than what the Berkley Overmind used. This is a mathematical technique that applies great for things like Star Craft and Naval Warfare, but more creatively could be applied to other military or even business environments, as always, the trick would be in proper application of the model.

Ghost tactics is similar to the Berkley Overmind overall effect. You track all the known positions of all the units, obstacles, etc. Create a 4D Vector field showing the areas over time of each units weapons effect and ranges, sensor effect and ranges, and use that data to generate a constantly updating Convex Hull (This makes me glad I signed up for that differential geometry elective in college). Simply put, a Convex Hull is a path showing the intersection of two different overlapping data sets (typically represented by vector fields or shapes). The idea is that you create 2 data sets. First an enemy data set showing where and when they are strong and weak. You create the same data set for all of your units.

Giving the 2 data sets knowing where and when all the safe and dangerous places are, relative to each individual unit, changing over time and as new data comes in. You create a convex hull in the computer overlapping all your strong positions with all the enemies weak positions. You prioritize them by the best and worse places to go. The Berkley Overmind basically accomplished this result in real time without resorting to complex geometry.

Now the Author Walter Jon Williams takes it a step further, suggesting you move your forces along that convex hull with a path planning algorithm that uses a chaos based function to maneuver randomly across that convex hull, so the opponent cannot predict where you will be or anticipate your strategy, beyond that you will always have your forces lined up where you have a tactical and strategic advantage. Great for attrition, but I’m not sure how you reconcile unpredictable target selection with high value target selection.

Sounds great in theory. Would be fun to try using a convex hull and chaos theory to make a highly dynamic and unpredictable AI, always wanted to see what that would look like and how well it would hold up in the real world.

Combined Arms

This is likely already on the way. Just like in the real world, the advantages given by using different weapons in a complimentary fashion will likely show up soon in the AI competition. The one I would really like to see is complimentary use of special abilities certain units have. Apparently the Second place team had Terran Workers constantly repairing units in battle, and gave that AI a competitive advantage only really overcome by old fashioned attrition.

OODA Loops

I can hear the skeptical half of the military community groaning already. But there is two applications of OODA that I would love to see in this context.

1 – The 30 second battle plan. Not sure how they do it now, but as detailed in One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick; a decade ago Marine officer training taught officers to make their OODA loops faster. The idea being if you could plan and begin a battle plan, or for that matter change a battle plan in 30 seconds, you could react to a changing battle field faster than the enemy, and eventually out maneuver him. In the AI competition, ironically this would probably result in a programming exercise to optimize and tighten code for the purposes of making decisions and making analysis faster; ideally to be able to react and adapt faster than your opponents.

One possibility would be to code Ghost Tactics to compute the Convex Hull in the Graphics processor; which is specifically designed for differential geometry computation (assuming the competition server has a graphics card installed).

2 – Shock and Awe. I doubt you will demoralize an AI through fast attrition. But if you can hit an AI with different problems very quickly; you should be able to confuse it or slow down it’s decision making, may be even able to get it into decision lock, simply by giving it more problems than it can deal with. Now you’d have to be an expert in AI psychology (i.e. a Programmer) to do this properly. But it should result in some interesting effects if you can figure out how to pull it off.

Well, That’s all I have. The future is coming. If you believe the world is flat (or at least that I’m not the only person who reads outside my industry) I guarantee you people in the Defense industry are already looking to adapt the techniques from the Berkley Overmind into use of drones and C4ISR systems (I would love to use the Berkley Overmind to control say a few dozen Predator Drones on Patrol, you’d need human eyes to verify targets and give attack permission, but still at the very least would be a great way to determine path planning for scout drones, and maybe even to coordinate them on tactical offensive in a large scale conflict). Some aggressive financial types may even be able to translate those algorithms into highly adaptive and competitive day trading software somehow (they already figured out high frequency microsecond trading). When It comes the SCADA, I’ll just say I’m curious what could be done with smart SCADA, I’ve heard of several half baked failures already. But I’m a Post Modernist at heart, have to mix everything together and see what ideas I can adapt from unrelated places. I’m looking forward to seeing more good things come from the Star Craft AI Competition.

Thanks for Reading,

Your humble wishing he had more time to write and do research strategist,

TS Galpin

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