Monday, December 18, 2006

Fog of war, and colleagues turned enemies

US troops negotiate snow and ice during the battle on Attu in May, 1943."Fog of War" is a military expression used to represent the uncertainty in a theater of operations. The uncertainty, caused by incomplete information, obfuscates the judgment preceding important decisions.

A good leader is expected reduce the fog of war before making a decision and later to live with the consequences of that decision.

Using a WWII episode as an example, we can look at the Japanese invasion the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. After suffering thousands of casualties while retaking Attu, the Allies did not realize that the Japanese had retreated from Kiska under dense fog formation. Without the information, the Allies mustered a costly force of 40,000 American and Canadian soldiers to land on the island. Eventually, some of those forces turned on each other, but more on that later.

In the office environment, similar situations occur when decisions must be made and little data is available. In the absence of data, people invariably resort to the next best thing, which are opinions based on previous experiences.

Just like in the Aleutian Islands, even when the situations may seem similar and cause the illusion of absolute certainty, the technologies underpinning our collective discussions change by the minute. The changes manifest themselves in different ways. Sometimes, a technology may have matured enough to tip the balance used in previous decisions; or new understanding of the consequences of a previous decision may have changed the thought process for solving those kinds of problems. Just think of how many people declared the Java programming language a toy when it first came out on 1997 or derided Ethernet networks as theoretically inferior to Token Ring networks. Those assertions had their merits, but lost their ground as these technologies matured.

One may argue that discussions can always happen with civility, but for as long as one's opinion is based on one's experience, that opinion is indelibly associated with its author. The proponent of an opinion is indirectly putting his reputation behind it. Often, proving an opinion wrong means proving its author wrong. Given enough time and a protracted argument with opposite opinion, colleagues may soon finding themselves defending their ideas and reputations at the same time.

And it can happen to any of us. Creating a new model and collecting specific data to make every single decision in our professional lives is impractical. We will offer opinions and be wrong. We must make peace with the fog of war as it is everywhere. The office version of the fog of war cannot be entirely avoided, but can be reduced to the point where people can still see each other as allies. Negotiation and decision making are sufficiently mature disciplines and some techniques go a long way towards thinning the fog of war.

When facing a choice that requires consensus, the first step is to have all parties to agree on the factors that are important for that decision. The second step is to collect as much data about the alternatives. That collective activity achieves two purposes, (1) it creates a shared framework of perspectives as each party explains why certain factors are important to them; and (2) the newly collected data validates their frames of mind, separating opinion from fact.

There may be conflicts of interest but they will show up early in the process as areas to be worked out instead of manifesting themselves in meeting standoffs.

No matter what technique suits you, it is important to walk into every situation accepting that your experiences may no longer be valid and to be prepared to force a collective back down when diverging opinions start to dominate the discussion. That may be a good point to get the parties to agree on the lack of a model to explain the situation and the lack of data to justify either position.

Walking in armed to the teeth amidst a dense fog without enough information about the situation is extremely dangerous as can attest the troops that landed on Kiska. The Allies faced terrible weather with low visibility, still reeling from the grievous losses incurred in Attu and carrying the chilling memories of hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers. When the situation, experiences, and memories came together, a few of the nervous troops eventually mistook their allies by Japanese platoons and opened fire on each other.

Over 300 lives were lost in a fog of lack of data and bad assumptions.

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