Venkat on Positioning vs. Melee Moves

Blogfriend, Dr. Venkat Rao had an intriguing post at Tempo (his other blog) on which I want to make a few, relatively disjointed, observations:

Positioning Moves versus Melee Moves 

My general philosophy of decision-making de-emphasizes the planning/execution distinction. But I am not an agility purist. Nobody is. You can think of the Agility Purist archetype as a useful abstraction. This mythical kind of decision-maker believes that a mind and personality that is sufficiently prepared for a particular domain (say programming or war or biochemistry) needs no preparation for specific situations or contingencies. This magical being can jump into any active situation in that particular domain and immediately start acting effectively.

At the other extreme you have an equally mythical Planning Purist archetype who has thought through every possible contingency all the way through the end and can basically hit “Start” and reach a successful outcome without further thinking. In fiction, this is best represented by jewelry heist capers based on long, involved and improbably robust sequences of moves, as in Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. A few token things go wrong, but overall, these narratives play out like Rube Goldberg machines. 

What is interesting to me is that if we look at historical figures who epitomize a “purist archetype” they can represent disaster as easily as they can triumph. Take the planner archetype,  for example. Two figures in the annals of warfare who are “purists” in this regard would be Moltke the Elder and Robert Strange McNamara.

Because the Vietnam War was such a terrible debacle and because McNamara’s role in the war was so significant the resulting opprobrium heaped upon McNamara (deservedly, IMHO) makes it too easy to forget that he had a brilliant mind, that he was not just a reckless bumbler or a hack as Secretary of Defense. A famous anecdote of McNamara’s intelligence and his ability to quickly grasp enormous reams of data is in The Best and the Brightestby David Halberstam.  As Halberstam related, Secretary McNamara was once over a thousand slides into  being briefed about the war when he abruptly ordered the briefer to stop because the current slide conflicted with the information on something like “slide 23”. They stopped and checked. McNamara was indeed right.

It was McNamara who introduced systems analysis and PPBS to the Department of Defense, created the DIA and the Defense Logistics Agency. Yet despite his methodical and mathematical analytical gifts, his understanding of the human element was a curious lacuna that led to his carefully calculated attrition strategy and escalation. There was no way way, in Robert Strange McNamara’s metrics, to quantify Hanoi’s will to fight, and without such comprehension, attrition would be (to use a popular phrase anachronistically) a “stratergy of tactics”.

Field Marshal Graf von Moltke’s careeer as a war planner and chief of the Prussian general staff was a happier one as the victor in three of Prussia’s wars and a co-founder, with Bismarck, of the German Empire. A devoted student of Clausewitz, von Moltke was at home in the contradiction of exquisite planning and the improvisation that was part and parcel of coup d’oeil in the midst of battle. Unlike McNamara, von Moltke’s planning encompassed the human factors and serendipity. As Antulio J. Echevarria put it:

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