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Blog: Lessons for winning in the Networked Age from Aerial Combat

In my last article, Where are all the Blockchains? I gave a prediction on the timeline for blockchain technology to become mainstream. In this article, I consider how organisations and individuals can develop maneuverable mindsets for a new age, using lessons from aerial combat that uncover principles of success in warfare that are millennia old.

In the midst of the aerial combat that took place during the Korean War in the 1950’s, a strange fact emerged, thousands of feet above the ground. The North Koreans used a Russian Fighter aircraft, the Mig 15. We’ve come to think of American aircraft technology today as better than anything else. Yet the new Russian Fighter aircraft was beautifully performant. It was unusually good and superior to the American F-86 Sabre fighter jet in almost every way. The Russian Fighter had better acceleration, higher maximum speed, higher climb rate and superior high-altitude performance.

However, something strange was happening. Despite those seemingly unbeatable advantages, the North Koreans, were losing dogfights at a rate of ten Mig jets for each American jet they shot down. Even though the North Koreans had a superior aircraft. In combat, with all other things equal, the aircraft performance counts, so it didn’t make sense. What was happening?

One of the US pilots, the eccentric and tangential thinking John Boyd, analysed the data in an effort to understand what was happening. He strongly believed the higher success rate of the Americans even while using a lower performance aircraft, was not as a result of some superiority in American pilot training, hand-eye skills or even genes. He wanted to uncover the reason for the higher American success rate.

What he found led to the development of a theory of winning and losing, a theory that can be applied to any competitive situation in almost any aspect of life. It also explained many situations and historical battles where inferior forces had overcome far more powerful rivalries.

John Boyd evolved a theory on winning and losing from combat

Boyd did in fact, find two critical differences when comparing the design and performance of the two aircraft. And in those two design aspects, he found differential advantages for the American fighter jet that the Russian Mig fighter did not have.

First, he noted that the US Sabre Jetfighter had a larger, bubble canopy. This gave the American pilots almost 360-degree vision. Secondly, he found that the US plane had hydraulic controls so that the Americans could perform any manoeuvre extremely quickly, with just light inputs to the Joy Stick. This allowed them to rapidly transition from one position to another and then back again. Or even into a totally different position.

The US Jet-fighter had a 360-degree canopy and light controls

The North Korean pilots could not react as fast, as they had heavier, non-hydraulic controls. The critical point however, was not that the US pilots could do this quickly. It was that they could do this more quickly than their adversaries. It was the relative advantage that made the difference.

Winning and Losing

This seemed to explain the differences in success rates that were being witnessed in the skies. But Boyd started thinking further on the nature of winning and losing. Over the next decade he developed a theory that could be applied to any environment.

In essence his theory stated that, in any competitive or adversarial situation the ability to move faster than your adversary is the ultimate advantage, particularly if the move is to a superior relative position. But critically it is not just the new position but the ‘transition’ to that new position that really counts. And the ability to do it again and again is what creates a superior tempo. Boyd was the first to codify the time element of combat to dislocate an enemy’s mind.

However, Boyd found a second critical element. In order to make a better move, he uncovered the concept of superior ‘Situational Awareness’ or orientation to events. The US Sabre fighter had a big, 360 degree ‘bubble canopy’ and the pilots could now get all-round vision. This increased their chance of making a superior move. The pilots with a wider ‘field of vision’ could build a more accurate mental picture of how the battle could unfold. By continually matching this picture to reality the American pilots were able to build, destroy and rebuild their mental models more quickly. In other words, their mental models more accurately matched real-world events.

But there was one additional advantage that a faster move gave them, even when the situation wasn’t always clear in the pilot’s mind. It proved better to move than not move, even when the picture wasn’t totally clear. In other words, when stuck in a losing situation, they increased their chance of getting a win by moving and trying a new angle of attack.

Even if the ‘strategic picture’ is not always clear, move. By creating a new angle or just testing an idea with a change in trajectory, you may get a better line of sight or a more informed picture of the battlefield.

Movement can stimulate fresh thinking and provide real world feedback.

In his later years, Boyd went on to develop a theory of ‘manoeuvre warfare’ and further conceptualise his theory of winning and losing. However, the ability to make faster transients than one’s foe, again and again, and thereby ‘building’ greater situational awareness, remains at the heart of his theory.

Mindset in the Age of Emerging Technology

So how could Boyd’s work on warfare in days past possibly guide success in our current era?

Indeed, we live in a fast world. Our business and societal environment is changing, faster than ever before. As has happened for time immemorial, success will go to those who can grasp the ‘context’ we operate in, more quickly than the rest can.

When any organisation is in a competitive situation, the victor is determined by the group that can ‘orientate’ most quickly to that new or evolving situation. But it is relative. You don’t have to be high speed all the time, you just have to be faster than your competitors when it counts.

The Age of Networks has just started

Recently, we have seen the emergence of three tech trends that are significantly changing the business environment.

1. Cloud Computing (and the abstraction of hardware into software)

2. Blockchain Technology (for Enterprise application as opposed to Cryptocurrencies)

3. Artificial Intelligence.

These three trends will soon combine to fuel an era so powerful that it will reset the nature of the organisations that we work within. Connectedness will go beyond ‘the internet’. Networks with evolve, both within and outside of the traditional internet. We are likely to see new ‘secure networks’ that operate with ‘permissioned players’ so that cyberthreats are minimised. These may structure new industry and social groups. Increased opportunities will be exploited and set alongside counters to increasing threats. It will require a rethinking of the Social Physics at play, in both our social and business networks.

While some networks will evolve to form permissioned access with known partners gated off and strongly protected from outside cyber-attack, other public, open networks will evolve in a decentralised way. These will operate on blockchains without a central point of control like that seen with Facebook, Google, YouTube and Amazon. Blockchains will have wider governance, giving more transparency on quality metrics, provenance, component sourcing, trace-ability and outcome recording.

This new environment will produce new business ‘ecosystems’. The ecosystem environment will see different business relationships emerge both locally and remotely but will be unencumbered by distance or association. It will impact work forces, business processes, supply chains, back-end functions, customer responsiveness and market profiles. These will be driven primarily by those three emerging technologies above.

As advanced as these new technologies are and while business needs to understand them, it is more important to work out how we need to adapt to this new world. Organisational structures and business relationships are heavily influenced by technology but ultimately it is people that make business happen. ‘Organisational Mindset’ has a power well beyond the technology itself.

The question that we need to ask ourselves now is not, how will the environment change, but how will we change to become ‘shape shifters’?

How do business leaders develop a mindset to win with emerging technology?

1. Gain and maintain greater situational awareness — ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the context.

The first and most critical skill for survival let alone success is to be able to map the world we live in. That means being able to see the forces at play, conceptualise how they are changing and gain visibility on who the players are. This is to understand the ‘context’. Ancient Chinese military strategy, like that espoused by Sun Tsu, has always placed a greater emphasis on the context than the participants. This is because of the interactive, dynamic effect that the environment we operate in, has on the nature of our business. We must also grasp that it is impossible to know and understand the world exactly as it is. Any belief we hold that our view is the absolute view is pure perception. A pyramid looks like a triangle when viewed from the ground yet a square when viewed from above. So, we must be continually building and destroying our ‘situational picture’.

For the business context, this really means trying to ‘see’ the networked world we now exist in. We are only just getting used to this for as much as we think the internet wave is old, it has really only just begun. We are just in the early stages of new networked age. In many ways we have not yet grasped the effect of the ‘connectedness’ that we have.

2. Develop a ‘Sixth Sense’, an intuition or a ‘Finger Tip’ feel for action.

Learn how to think faster than your competition about the world we live in. Develop a ‘network sense’.

How? Updating knowledge of the world and the change happening weekly is necessary (Situational Awareness). But skilful application of that knowledge is only gained by testing it out. Try these new ideas and test new assumptions in rapid cycles of learning. To become a shape shifter, one’s thinking must constantly evolve.

Analyse new technologies and new situations. Question how new technologies could change the environment you currently operate in. Break them down into components. Generate a thesis on how those factors and new situations could work. Then synthesis it — put the components back together in a different way. Test again. Fail. Try something new. Test gain. This is how you develop a superior ‘Operational Tempo’. But each test must limit any downside, as the organisational skill level is built up. There is no room anymore for large scale project disasters.

At a team level, question all assumptions. Run regular sessions with your staff on fresh thinking. Brainstorm regularly. Develop a ‘Skunkworks’ or ‘Red Team’ internally that reviews new tech and develops potential moves that your competitors may make. Mind-map the potential solutions. Leadership needs to embrace fresh thinking, encouraging it, not crushing it.

3. Be light, in both mindset and form.

To move fast, you must be light and mobile. So, develop a lean operational form. Have IT, business and people systems in place that could be quickly transformed to new locations, new markets and new customer base.

The coming five years will see significant shift in markets and competitive forces. New skill sets and capabilities will be needed and the ability to rapidly skill up will be useful. An organisational form that supports a manoeuvrable culture is like a team that can adapt to new competitors with a different ‘play book’.

Learn from other historical epochs.

This has happened before. Throughout history there have been periods of rapid technological gain. Each epoch seemingly comes at us with a new order of magnitude over the last. First shelter, then fire, tribal formation, agriculture, organised civilisation, gun powder, steam engines, factories, electricity, the computer chip, the internet and now the networked world.

What is the context for the future?

As these technologies evolve, we must grasp the new context, in the interaction between ourselves, the new technology and the environment. There is a new topology evolving between these three areas. A nimble mind enables one to gain a faster and more complete grasp of any new situation. A petrified mind ensures one is locked into the last epoch. Situational awareness is more about mindset than anything else. Nothing is static. There will be threats and opportunities ahead. We must train our minds to think with a new freshness each day in order to win.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but building the new”.


Kris Vette is an Emerging Technology Strategist. He runs Chain Ecosystems, a consultancy that enables organisations to both understand and posture themselves for success in the age of networks.

Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium

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