Winning the Fight: Managing Uncertainty

How can we prepare for the unexpected? Whether you are a military leader, law enforcement officer, or a citizen trying to protect your home, attempting to answer this question is critically important for your success. All the great military theorists in history, from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz, have emphasized the uncertainty of combat, the “fog and friction” of war. While it is critically important to do our best to assess threats and predict threat courses of action, we must understand that we can never achieve certainty. Historical trends suggest that our chances of predicting future events are actually extremely low. If this is the case, how can we prepare for what we cannot predict?

While some current trends suggest that advanced technology and sensors can eliminate uncertainty and provide perfect intelligence, experienced fighters know this will never be possible. Instead, this article suggests two ways to prepare for the unexpected and increase your chances of success in the unpredictable combat environment. The concepts in this article (first in a three-part series) are drawn from Special Tactics’ new book Winning the Fight: A Conceptual Framework for Combat Performance Enhancement.

STEP 1: Master the Basics to Simplify the Equation

The experienced tactician is very familiar with the unexpected, also known as “Murphy” in tactical slang. Murphy represents the constant friction of combat and the inevitable emergence of unexpected problems. Essentially, what can go wrong will go wrong. To prepare for the unexpected, the first step is to attempt to neutralize all of the other, controllable variables in order to free up maximum bandwidth to deal with Murphy when he arrives. This means mastering the basics to the point where they are automatic and require minimal attention or conscious thought.

When Murphy confronts an inexperienced unit that has not mastered the basics, that unit will only be able to focus 10 percent of its attention on Murphy because 90 percent of its attention will be consumed by things like how to change magazines, which firing positions to select, how to set up the machine gun and how to talk on the radio. On the other hand, an elite unit that has mastered the basics can focus 90 percent of its attention on Murphy because all of those other, simpler tasks are second nature and taking care of themselves.

Thus, the moral of the story is that the first step to prepare for uncertainty is not to focus on the uncertainty itself but rather to focus on all the other things so they will not get in the way when the big problem shows up. If you must look down and fumble with your magazines, your eyes are not scanning for unexpected threats. If as a military commander, you waste valuable time dealing with preventable maintenance issues or fixing broken communications and logistics systems, you have less time to focus on the more complex and uncertain problems.

Whatever level of combat you are dealing with, by controlling the controllables and making the basics of your profession second nature, you can free up maximum bandwidth in your brain for situational awareness and critical thinking. Mastering the basics requires a great deal of hard work and many hours of diligent training under realistic conditions. For larger organizations, it will also require realistic exercises, rehearsals and the establishment of streamlined systems for functions like communications, supply and information sharing.

STEP 2: Become Comfortable with Chaos through Adaptability Training

Most modern adaptability training programs involve teaching the mind to be comfortable with chaos, learn on the fly and generate creative solutions to unfamiliar problems. This sort of training grew more popular during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan when small-unit leaders found themselves having to deal with complex problems they had never trained to confront. A squad leader may have been very knowledgeable about how to set up an ambush, but what about helping a local mayor fight corruption?

It was impossible to anticipate and train for every contingency, so adaptability training instead showed leaders how to think and solve unexpected problems on their own, using their brains. An effective adaptability training exercise usually includes some of the following elements:

  • Providing units with incomplete or incorrect information and instructions
  • Introducing unexpected variables or changes into the scenario without warning
  • Confronting the unit with dilemmas that have no clear right answer
  • Overloading the unit with unrealistic or impossible demands to see how the leaders react to stress
  • “Killing” the leader to test the succession of command and see if subordinates can carry on without interruption
  • Placing the leader in a situation where he/she must question a superior’s orders in order to achieve success

Essentially, the purpose of an adaptability exercise is to push a unit (or individual) to the limit by generating maximum stress, uncertainty and chaos. Over time, the unit will perform better and better in these adaptability exercises. However, possibly the most critical point is that adaptability training will prove much more effective if a unit has already mastered the basics. There is a reason the two training methods are labeled “step 1” and “step 2” in this article.

While it is possible to move directly to step 2 and a unit might gain something from getting thrown straight into the chaos, the chances are that the unit will mostly just learn “how to lose,” and build bad habits in the process. You could compare this to throwing a novice boxing student into the ring with a heavyweight champion. The student wouldn’t learn much except what it feels like to get knocked out. More importantly, experiencing repeated poundings and failures without the tools to fight back can have long-term, crippling effects on confidence and morale.

For this reason, this article advocates the “crawl… walk… run” approach. It is ok to throw students into the ring against overwhelming odds but at least give them the tools and basics so they can make sense of the experience and learn from it. The more grounding students have in the basics, the more they will learn from the unexpected challenges they encounter in adaptability exercises. This is one of the many critical lessons offered in Special Tactics’ new book Winning the FightIn part 2 of this three-part article, we will discuss techniques for developing threat assessment and risk assessments to drive planning and training priorities.