August 1, 2008  

Read different

Since the early 1990s, the defense industry has been talking about the revolutionary technological changes taking place across society. It has worked hard to ensure we know what those changes are and how they are affecting national security. Yet, the industry rarely talks about the fundamental requirement to change the way we think in order to understand the implications of the technological and social changes we face.

Although the wider academic and business communities are coming to grips with the fact that many of these advances are changing the way we understand the world, the defense industry does not seem to see this as an issue. We still tend to view the world as responding to linear approaches applied by bureaucratic entities.

Fortunately, over the past couple of decades, a number of books have provided thought-provoking new theories of how the world works. Unfortunately, these theories do not align with the planning processes we use in the defense industry. The first step in fixing our planning processes is to examine how science’s understanding of reality is changing.

The authors of these works highlight aspects of how the world has changed. This forces us to change how we frame problems, how we organize to deal with them and even how to get the best out of our people. For instance, if one still saw the world as a hierarchy, then one looked for the “leadership” of the Iraqi insurgency in 2003. Yet if one saw the world as a network in which emergent intelligence is a key factor, then one quickly saw the networked insurgent entities as they evolved an emergent strategy in Iraq. Our ability to adjust to the rapidly changing future security environment will, to a large degree, depend on our ability to understand the world as it is rather than as we have been taught to understand it. Reading these 12 books should help.


By James Gleick

In this delightfully readable book, Gleick guides the reader in exploring how the science of complexity (initially called chaos) fundamentally changed our view of the world. The bumper-sticker explanation of complexity — that a butterfly flaps its wings in China and we have rain in D.C. rather than a sunny day — captures the underlying concept that very small inputs in initial conditions can cause massive changes in outputs. It is impossible to measure all inputs in a complex system and, therefore, impossible to predict outcomes. Gleick published his work in 1987 to summarize the state of the science at that point. Yet it still serves as a great introduction to nonlinear systems — and as a caution to those who believe information technology will bring information dominance to its owners.


By Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

Barabasi helps readers understand the exceptional changes wrought by networks in our world. He provides clear, coherent and useful definitions of the various kinds of networks and how each is organized and functions. The implications for today’s conflicts are obvious. Iraq and Afghanistan provide real-world examples of how insurgents draw on pre-existing social networks to establish themselves. It is essential we understand how networks function and, thus, how to map them effectively. This book is a good primer.

Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design

Army Pamphlet 525-5-500

An Army pamphlet may seem an odd selection for a reading list, but this one is different. It provides a simple, clear but thoughtful understanding of “wicked problems.” It explains how to differentiate between well-structured and ill-structured or wicked problems. Our current planning processes tend to assume well-structured problems that can be solved in a linear, progressive manner. In fact, most of our problems are wicked problems that require an entirely different approach. The pamphlet provides 10 characteristics that help the reader identify such problems. It explains that with wicked problems, professionals will disagree on how the problem can be solved, the most desirable end state and even whether the end state can be attained. Dealing with an ill-structured problem requires “learning to perfect technique, adjust solution and refine problem framing. Adaptive iteration is required both to refine problem structure and to find the best solution.” The world is full of wicked problems. It’s time we understood the concept. Who knows? We might even stop making decisions about complex problems based on a 30-minute PowerPoint brief.


By Steven Johnson

Johnson explores the concept of emergent intelligence — how simple entities following simple rules create strategic effects with no overall leader or even a plan. The example he starts with is ants. Despite no brain or plan, ant colonies know when to gather food, build, defend, migrate, etc. This is an important concept for national security because we are seeing emergent intelligence in insurgent groups and gangs. Although there is no single planning entity for drug gangs, they have evolved a highly effective strategic approach that has kept them in business. Further, the Afghan insurgency against the Soviets and the early Iraqi insurgency against the coalition demonstrated many aspects of emergence. Paired with a deeper knowledge of networks, it will change our analysis of how nonstate actors interact and generate strategic effects.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

By Clayton M. Christensen

Although clearly targeted at business, this book has application for government, too. It explores why “sound decisions by great managers can lead firms to failure” when dealing with rapidly changing conditions. After it explores the conditions that can cause such failure, it explores management solutions to the problem — both in the short and the long term. Given the increasing rate of change of structures and technology, it is essential that military and civilian leaders understand the management aspects of their jobs clearly. Christensen provides a thought-provoking model for innovative organizations.

The Wisdom of Crowds

By James Surowiecki

This book should have particular interest for national security professionals. If Surowiecki is right, our selection and promotion system in both the civil and military bureaucracy virtually dooms us to make bad decisions as a group. His thesis is that crowds, provided they are diverse, independent and have a degree of decentralization, will consistently arrive at the best answer in a number of different or complex problems. The converse is that a group of experts, if they come from similar backgrounds with similar education and experiences and work in a centralized structure, are likely to consistently give bad answers. Although you may disagree with his conclusions, Sorowiecki’s book definitely will alter your views on how to build a problem-solving team. It should force us to reconsider our personnel promotion systems.

The Geography of Thought

By Richard E. Nisbett

Given the central position China plays in almost all national security discussions, Nisbett’s book is timely. He writes “that two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years. These approaches include profoundly different social relations, views about the nature of the world and characteristic thought processes.” He provides compelling evidence that Eastern and Western thought have evolved along different lines for millennia. Although we often talk about an Eastern way of thought or an Eastern way of war, most of our analysis of China’s threat seems to be based on mirror imaging. Nisbett provides a well-written, well-researched antidote.

Hidden Order

By John H. Holland

Holland, who developed the genetic algorithms that allow modeling one form of complex adaptive systems, provides the reader with a look at how such systems may deal with emergence and complexity. This is not a fast-moving fun read like many of the books on this list are, but it provides a solid understanding of complex adaptive systems to include the seven general principles that allow agents to create such systems. Given modern insurgencies, as well as criminal networks, are complex adaptive systems, it is important we understand them. This is a good place to start.

The Starfish and the Spider

By Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

For more than a decade, nonstate actors from right-wing skinheads to Islamic insurgents have been exploring the concept of leaderless resistance. Because of the fragmented nature of the coalitions of the angry in Iraq and Afghanistan, these insurgencies exhibit many of the characteristics of leaderless networks. This book helps the reader understand how these organizations function and, with analysis, how to disrupt them. Just as important, the authors provide ideas for how centralized bureaucracies can evolve into hybrid organizations that can compete with leaderless networks.

The Black Swan

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Entertaining and easy to read, Taleb’s book is a best-seller that explores an important concept. Real changes in systems are often unpredictable jumps rather than evolutions. Thus, for years, the phrase “All swans are white” was used as shorthand for scientific truth. Then, in 1697, explorers found black swans in Australia. Taleb states that observers were trapped in what he called “Mediocristan” — the land of the bell curve — where the likelihood of events is calculated by the number of times they were previously observed. In contrast, the real world “Extremistan” — where chaos reigns and previously unobserved events occur — power laws and fractal geometry explain the world in ways bell curves cannot. Unfortunately, one can never know whether one is in “Mediocristan” or “Extremistan” and, thus, whether the bell curve is an accurate guide. Thus, organizations must build in flexibility to deal with unanticipated but world-changing events.


By Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

This is a good basic discussion of how collaboration changes the nature of many businesses. Unfortunately, the authors try to be a bit to cute with their “business consultant” language, yet it provides the basics of collaboration in a light read. If you already understand wikis, ignore this book. If not, it will give you the basics and plenty of food for thought on how one can use collaboration to mine the wisdom of crowds.

The Singularity is Near

By Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil is a raving optimist about the future. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm for the possibilities in the not-too-distant future will put off some readers. However, you don’t have to agree with his concept of the future to see the immense value in his argument that almost all change is exponential rather than linear. He provides numerous examples across the spectrum of biological, social and technical change to bolster the idea. If one sees change as exponential, it changes both planning and day-to-day approaches to problems. For instance, if Kurzweil is right, the 21st century will not bring 100 years of change but 20,000. Even if he is 90 percent wrong, the century will still bring 2,000 years of change. Is your organization flexible enough to deal with it?

T.X. HAMMES retired from the Marine Corps after 30 years of service. He is pursuing a doctorate in history from Oxford University.