Learning versus Adaptation: Insights from Maneuver Warfare

Military metaphors are normally frowned upon in the organizational change world. Instead, organism metaphors and words like empowerment, collaboration, and partnership are preferred. But a friend of mine recently brought to my attention the Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind. Although it is primarily a book about military tactics and operations, this book also has some interesting ideas for organizational change practitioners.

Much of Lind’s book is built on a fundamental insight drawn from the discoveries of a scholar of arial combat named Colonel Boyd. Boyd researched numerous reports of dogfights during the Korean War and found that U.S. pilots were able regularly dominante North Korean pilots despite the fact that the North Korean’s MIG aircraft had far superior performance to the American’s F86. The advantage the Americans had was twofold: Not only could they see out of the cockpit better, they could change flight modes faster. This enabled them to adapt more quickly to the enemy.

According to Mr. Lind, “Conflict can be seen as time-competitive observation-orientation -decision-action cycles,” or OODA loops. These loops depict the ability of combatants to identify the changed situation and to switch to a new tactic quickly. The successive adaptations create an increasing advantage, until the opponent is unable to keep up and is subsequently overwhelemed.

In the domain of organizational change, the “defenses” that we encounter are largely cognitive, but we do know that the “frontal assault” of invariant mandates from management are largely ineffective. Instead, we have to design changes that will will provide incentives for the new behaviors. Then, we have to gather feedback as the change is rolled out and quickly adjust as we learn the countours and texture of any resistance to the change. How quickly the change team can learn and adjust to ensure that the change effort offers a truly better and more effective way or working will be a critical factor to success.

Of course, resistance also adjusts to the change effort. Thus, there can be no fixed schemes, no formulas or patterns. As soon as one method is deployed, the organization will also adapt to it, seeking to maintain the status quo. Each situation is unique, requiring a change design specifically attuned to the specific situation.

These days, learning is often considered essential for competing in the market. Since at least Nonaka and Takeuchi’s The Knowledge Creating Company was published in 1991, it has been often asserted “learning is the only remaining source of competitive advantage in the modern, globalizing knowledge economy.” The metaphor of maneuver warfare described by Lind suggests that it is not so much gathering knowledge as the ability to rapidly adapt that creates the advantage. Both organizations and change practitioners must quickly read the conditions, get oriented to them, and make new decision to act.

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