Serious Taboos

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

As I’ve already mentioned, in Serious Play, Michael Schrage, of the MIT Media Lab, examines how organizations use models, simulations, and prototypes to stimulate innovation.

He notes that when we want to learn about an organization, we should fight the impulse to look at what it puts into its models and simulations:

“I’ve learned that you learn far more about an organization from what they won’t model than from what they do,” asserts political scientist Garry Brewer, coauthor of the classic study of U.S. military simulations The War Game. “What I’ve observed — in both the military and private industry — is that organizations frequently leave out the very assumptions that are most important or most threatening to their sense of themselves. They always have a ‘good reason’ for this…. As a result, many organizations expend an extraordinary amount of effort developing models that can never be as useful or as valid as they say they want.”

For example:

In its war games during the 1980s, for example, the U.S. Navy would not allow aircraft carriers — its biggest, most expensive, and perhaps most controversial weapons platform — to be sunk hypothetically. This taboo persisted even after the Argentines successfully sank a British carrier during the Falklands War. It held fast even when the navy’s own submariners argued that carriers were particularly vulnerable to under-sea attack. For a variety of budgetary, political, interservice-rivalry and national-security reasons, the navy was permitted to run extensive war games and simulations in which its biggest and most vulnerable carriers were given a pass. The taboo was tacitly respected in virtually all formal reviews. External efforts to simulate conflicts in which carriers were destroyed were met with threats of security classification. One result, documented in Thomas B. Allen’s War Games, a popular history of U.S. war gaming, is that the navy acquired a reputation for cheating that undermined the credibility of naval proposals and exacerbated interservice rivalries. This particular taboo was deeply ironic because, as Harvard’s Stephen Peter Rosen ably documents in Winning the Next War, simulations and war games had been largely responsible for encouraging the navy to adopt aircraft carriers in the first place.

I discussed the U.S. Navy’s effective use of war games in Learning to Learn to Fight.

Erratum: I bow to mon frère‘s superior war-nerditry, for he caught this error in Schrage’s text: The HMS Sheffield was a destroyer not a carrier.

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