16 June 2014

The Power of Getting it Wrong

"However we do it, we're never gonna be more wrong than the way we did it before."

Never start a column with a quote. I think that's some rule in journalism.

Unless it's really good. And as I read Moneyball, so many of Michael Lewis's elegantly crafted phrases rise to the level of good enough to open a column.

And it reminds me of military operations, in many ways. I heard a similar quote in a brief at the command post where I work: "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." One Ken Robinson wrote that one, in a book called, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, which I haven't read.

But I have read Moneyball, and it is great. I think all great literature teaches one about life, and the Army is my life right now, so the circle of life continues, or something. Who's Fabio, anyway?

The bottom line of the Moneyball story is that a few creative problem solvers figured out how to win baseball games on the cheap. They were wildly successful, too. The Oakland A's didn't win any World Series titles, but they pushed the big spenders around pretty good, with a lot fewer resources at their disposal.

They were the insurgents of MLB, and they won a lot of assymetric wars by outthinking their rivals. They realized that they couldn't compete with the Yankees and Braves by doing things the Yankees' and Braves' ways. Billy Beane deserves his own Apple poster. To grace one, that is. I don't think just giving him a poster of Apple Computers is reward enough for how he revolutionized big league baseball.

We need some thinkers like that in the Army. There are quite a few, but I wouldn't quite call them "insurgents" (which would probably be impolitic).

My Jedi trainer, Karl Weick, also believes that "mistakes" can be good, though he puts it a different way:
...people who really get in trouble during crises are those who try to think everything through before taking any action.
We all know the cliche about how the best battle plan never survives first contact. What Weick is saying is that, given that reality, go ahead and act. If your organization is set up properly, then you'll be able to learn in real time, but you won't learn quickly unless you are engaged, and perhaps making small mistakes along the way.

In other words, risk aversion can be deadly. And the only thing worse than not doing anything is doing something wrong just because that's how you've always done it.


  1. Interesting post. I'm actually surprised you're not running across more folks who push the changes like that in the Army. I think drones (for better or worse) are an example of doing things differently in a military setting. It seems like you'd also get some analysts doing some creative things - like the big data statistics that they use to identify terrorists.

  2. Those things are done on the fringes. A study is begging to be done here. Agencies like DARPA and offices with charges to experiment absolutely do push the limit. But by the time something gets institutionalized, it is just that. So the culture to innovate is stifled in the military, while smnall cells of expert operate on the periphery or on tangents.

  3. Hmmm... that's kind of disappointing to hear that innovation isn't part of the general culture in the military, but I guess it's understandable. It's always tough for big organizations to change. Hopefully more of those fringe efforts start to spill over to impact the broader efforts (although some innovations like drones are a little bit scary).