In today’s post, I will be looking at Clausewitz’s concept of “friction”. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian general and military philosopher. Clausewitz is considered to be one of the best classical strategy thinkers and is well known for his unfinished work, “On War.” The book was published posthumously by his wife Marie von Brühl in 1832.
War is never a pleasant business and it takes a terrible toll on people. The accumulated effect of factors, such as danger, physical exertion, intelligence or lack thereof, and influence of environment and weather, all depending on chance and probability, are the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper. Friction, Clausewitz noted, was what separated war in reality from war on paper. Friction, as the name implies, hindered proper and smooth execution of strategy and clouded the rational thinking of agents. He wrote:
War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.
Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.
Friction is the only conception which, in a general way, corresponds to that which distinguishes real war from war on paper. The military machine, the army and all belonging to it, is in fact simple; and appears, on this account, easy to manage. But let us reflect that no part of it is in one piece, that it is composed entirely of individuals, each of which keeps up its own friction in all directions.
Clausewitz viewed friction as impeding our rational abilities to make decisions. He cleverly stated, “the light of reason is refracted in a manner quite different from that which is normal in academic speculation… the ordinary man can never achieve a state of perfect unconcern in which his mind can work with normal flexibility.” In a tense situation, as most often the case is in combat, the “freshness” or usefulness of the available information is quickly decaying and reliability of the information is also in question.
Friction is what happens when reality differs from your model. Although Clausewitz’s concept of friction contains other elements, I am interested in is the friction coming from ambiguous information. Uncertainty and information are related to each other. In fact, one is the absence of the other. The only way to reduce uncertainty (be certain) is to have the required information that counters the uncertainty. To quote Wikipedia, Uncertainty refers to epistemic situations involving imperfect or unknown information. If we have full information then we don’t have uncertainty. It’s a zero-sum game.
We have two options to deal with the uncertainty due to informational friction:
- Reduce uncertainty by making useful information readily available to required agents when needed and where needed
- Come up with ways to tolerate uncertainty when we are not able to reduce it further.
As Moshe Rubinstein points out in his wonderful book, Tools for Thinking and Problem Solving, uncertainty is reduced only by acquisition of information and you need to ask three questions, in the order specified, when acquiring information.
- Is the information relevant? (is it current, and is the context applicable?)
- Is the information credible? (is it accurate?)
- Is the information worth the cost?
How should we proceed to minimize the friction?
- We should try to get the total picture, an understanding of the forest before we get lost in the trees. This helps us in realizing where our epistemic boundaries might be, and where we need to improve our learning.
- We should have the courage to ask questions and cast doubts on our world views. Even with our belief system, we can ask whether it is relevant and credible. We should try to ask – what is wrong with this picture? What am I missing?
- We should always keep on learning. We should not shy away from “hard projects.” We should see the challenges as learning experiences.
- We should know and be ready to have our plan fail. We should understand what the “levers” are in our plan. What happens when we push on one lever versus pulling on another? We should have models with the understanding that they are not perfect but they help us understand things better. We should rely on heuristics and flexible rules of thumbs. They are more flexible when things go wrong.
- We should reframe our understanding from a different perspective. We can try to draw things out or write about it or even talk about it to your spouse or family. Different viewpoints should be welcomed. We should generate multiple analogies and stories to help tell our side of the story. These will only help in further our understanding.
- When we make decisions under uncertainty and risk, each action can result in multiple outcomes, and most of the times, these are unpredictable and can have large-scale consequences. We should engage in fast and safe-to-fail experiments and have strong feedback loops to change course and adapt as needed.
- We should have stable substructures when things fail. This allows us to go back to a previous “safe point” rather than go back all the way to the start.
- We should go to gemba to grasp the actual conditions and understand the context. Our ability to solve a problem is inversely proportional to the distance from the gemba.
- We should take time, as permissible, to detail out our plan, but we should be ready to implement it fast. Plan like a tortoise and run like a hare.
- We should go to the top to take a wide perspective, and then come down to have boots on ground. We should take time to reflect on what went wrong and what went right, and what our impact was on ourselves and others. This is the spirit of Hansei in Toyota Production System.
Although not all of us are engaged in a war at the gemba, we can learn from Clausewitz about the friction from uncertainty, which impedes us on a daily basis. Clausewitz first used the term “friction” in a letter he wrote to his future wife, Marie von Brühl, in 1806. He described friction as the effect that reality has on ideas and intentions in war. Clausewitz was a man ahead of his time, and from his works we can see elements of systems thinking and complexity science.
We propose to consider first the single elements of our subject, then each branch or part, and, last of all, the whole, in all its relations—therefore to advance from the simple to the complex. But it is necessary for us to commence with a glance at the nature of the whole, because it is particularly necessary that in the consideration of any of the parts the whole should be kept constantly in view. The parts can only be studied in the context of the whole, as a “gestalt.“
Clausewitz realized that each war is unique and thus what may have worked in the past may not work this time. He said:
Further, every war is rich in particular facts; while, at the same time, each is an unexplored sea, full of rocks, which the general may have a suspicion of, but which he has never seen with his eye, and round which, moreover, he must steer in the night. If a contrary wind also springs up, that is, if any great accidental event declares itself adverse to him, then the most consummate skill, presence of mind and energy, are required; whilst to those who only look on from a distance, all seems to proceed with the utmost ease.
Clausewitz encourages us to get out of our comfort zone, and gain as much variety of experience as we can. The variety of states in the environment always is larger than the variety of states we can hold. He continues to advise the following to reduce the impact of friction:
The knowledge of this friction is a chief part of that so often talked of, experience in war, which is required in a good general. Certainly, he is not the best general in whose mind it assumes the greatest dimensions, who is the most overawed by it (this includes that class of over-anxious generals, of whom there are so many amongst the experienced); but a general must be aware of it that he may overcome it, where that is possible; and that he may not expect a degree of precision in results which is impossible on account of this very friction. Besides, it can never be learnt theoretically; and if it could, there would still be wanting that experience of judgment which is called tact, and which is always more necessary in a field full of innumerable small and diversified objects, than in great and decisive cases, when one’s own judgment may be aided by consultation with others. Just as the man of the world, through tact of judgment which has become habit, speaks, acts, and moves only as suits the occasion, so the officer, experienced in war, will always, in great and small matters, at every pulsation of war as we may say, decide and determine suitably to the occasion. Through this experience and practice, the idea comes to his mind of itself, that so and so will not suit. And thus, he will not easily place himself in a position by which he is compromised, which, if it often occurs in war, shakes all the foundations of confidence, and becomes extremely dangerous.
US President Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The act of planning helps us to conceptualize our future state. We should strive to minimize the internal friction, and we should be open to keep learning, experimenting, and adapting as needed to reach our future state. We should keep on keeping on:
“Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counter-weight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary. Moreover, there is hardly a worthwhile enterprise in war whose execution does not call for infinite effort, trouble, and privation; and as man under pressure tends to give in to physical and intellectual weakness, only great strength of will can lead to the objective. It is steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity.”
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Exploring The Ashby Space: