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Monday, February 29, 2016

Perils of One-Way Thinking


Napoleon's Disastrous 1812 Russian Campaign

                                                   Click to Enlarge                                                       

Each semester, my friend, who teaches business statistics, brings a framed copy of this illustration*-- devoted to Napoleon's disastrous 1812 Moscow campaign--to class. He uses it to demonstrate how in a single graphic, you can elegantly and intuitively illustrate a narrative’s multiple streams of information.  I value the graphic above all for its depiction of an error in judgment that, I think, holds its own with such cognitive and social biases as excessive anchoring, overweighing data because of their availability, and Groupthink. 

That would be our more than occasional tendency—like Napoleon and his armies in Russia—to become so fixated on a goal that we fail to plan adequately for the return to our starting point. Or, in a variant, neglecting our home base while we’re en route to such a goal.  Both are examples of tunnel vision--a rendez-vous with obsessive one-way linearity.

Dogs of War. In the fall of 1812 Napoleon and his Grande Armée failed to achieve his strategic goal of taking Moscow and much of Russia. Perhaps worse, his strategy treated the return trip in late autumn as an afterthought. His  inadequately provisioned army paid the price, with many of them dying on the vine in their slog back to Western Europe and France. (For added poignancy, listen to Mark Knopfler's "I'm Done with Bonaparte" here.)

Flash forward to 2003, in Desert Storm II when G.W. Bush and his brain trust methodically secured Baghdad but stayed mired in Iraq for years. He should have taken a page from his father’s version of  Desert Storm, with its clearly defined and executed exit strategy.

How again do I get down?

Surviving and Thriving.  In Deep Survival, Lawrence Gonzales notes how mountain climbers get into trouble by hyperfocusing on the  ascent and reaching the summit. Treating the descent as an afterthought can prove fatal. Just as critical, warns Gonzales,  hikers need to  have alternative strategies on tap when poor visibility, adverse weather, and other natural forces scramble their mental maps.

In the business school where I work, alumni visitors to the classroom frequently sell students on the value of temporary overseas job placements. By and large, they are touted as sacrosanct. But in a recent installment of the Economist’s Schumpeter column, Adrian Wooldridge cautioned that many managers who excel in overseas postings ultimately lose ground to managers who stay home, sowing oats of corporate upward mobility. Managers who accept overseas assignments, then, need strong mentor/advocates and guaranteed opportunities waiting for them when they return.

Leaving Breadcrumbs.  In planning and execution, then, strategists and project managers should plan systematically for happy endings. Due diligence is a must; breadcrumbs won't do. 

*from Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post, Lou. I actually attended a full-day workshop (and purchased multiple books) offered by Edward Tufte. The graphic you included in your article was one of the ones he used to illustrate the power of well-designed visual displays of data.