Of Garbage Cans and Paradox: Reflexively Reviewing Design, Mission Command, and the Gray Zone:

Just read this piece this morning by Grant Martin, Of Garbage Cans and Paradox: Reflexively Reviewing Design, Mission Command, and the Gray Zone. What a great analysis on how bureaucracies, work and how to overcome or better yet, how to use them in technical or linear problems and learn how to adapt problem solving methods in the gray zone where most often adaptive challenges exist. He defined bureaucracies as rule following organizations, are set up to offer standardization, control and prediction.

I have also seen in policing the same type of decision making process of who is the most charismatic or the most powerful succeed in implementing plans. that too often turn out to be ineffective. I have also seen examples in policing that Grant started this piece with, involving his ass-chewing after doing a candid AAR:

"I remember the first time I felt paradox within the military. My boss had asked
for an After Action Review (AAR) of a training event he had set up for multiple Special Forces (SF) teams within our company. I surveyed the members of my team, wrote out three things that we thought went well and three things that we thought could be done differently. Shortly thereafter, I was called into my company commander’s office. He proceeded to berate me for my “immature” memorandum and then threatened to fire me.

“That training has never been done before! It was perfect!” he screamed at me. He then went through every member of my SF team and pointed out their weaknesses, implying, I thought, that they were not good sources for an AAR."

Experienced the same type of response myself numerous times over the years. Very scary how similar these (his and mine and i am sure many of you reading this) ass-chewing's were!!!

I have been fascinated by “paradoxes” since reading Edward Luttwak's Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace several years back and discusses numerous paradoxes. Some examples are: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” “A buildup of offensive weapons can be purely defensive.” “The worst road may be the best route to battle.” Strategy is made of such seemingly self-contradictory propositions. Edward Luttwak shows they exemplify the paradoxical logic that pervades the entire realm of conflict, which quite frankly fits the realm of policing as well. In policing some examples would be: persuasion and force, escalation and de-escaltion, police discretion and zero tolerance, letter of and spirit of, the law, justice and fairness, hurry up and slow down, slow and fast, linear and nonlinear processes, proactive and reactive, subjective and objective mindsets, etc. Balancing these paradoxes is an art that officers must learn to acknowledge, understand, and execute.

Grant Martin writes about how to make sense of the paradox: Reflective Learning, Reflexive Thinking and Mixed Methods Approaches.

The first task is to reorient ourselves away from traditional categorical and linear thinking. It is intuitive to see ourselves in the military as only executing policy and our military culture likes to think of itself as ‘separate from politics.’ But paradox points to things being counter-intuitive. According to Deborah Stone, who writes about paradoxes in public policy, we humans naturally struggle constantly to de-conflict competing values.

Grant has put a great piece together that identifies the problem and offers solutions. Policing and police leadership can learn a lot for this piece.

As a rule-following organization, the military both suffers and benefits from bureaucracy. One of the negative characteristics of bureaucracy is the co-opting of innovation. This co-option results in the dismantling of ideas and the re-wickering of innovative tools into something unworkable or at cross-purposes to their original intent. To make sense of this we first must look at the concept of paradox and understand that what we observe is not irrational or abnormal: paradox is the rule in how human institutions behave. Second, there are ways with which to make sense of paradox. Next, one example is provided, applying the Garbage Can Model of Decision Making to some of the military’s examples of paradox. Lastly, I use these insights to describe how organizations co-opt new ideas. This concept could allow military professionals to understand what happens to new ideas and why they happen so that they can anticipate co-option’s negative effects.

LTC Grant M. Martin is a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army. He has served in Afghanistan and South America. He graduated from The Citadel, has an MBA from George Mason University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University’s Public Administration program with special interest in researching the organizational obstacles within SOCOM and DoD to effective Irregular Warfare. He has been published in the International Journal, Military Review, OODA.com, and the Small Wars Journal, in addition to contributing to chapters in two textbooks on Design Thinking.

* Note: this paper is part of the Special Issue of Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, titled ‘Reflexive Military Practitioners: Design Thinking and Beyond’. The full issue can be accessed at: http://jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/issue/view/76

Stay Oriented!

Fred