Complexity, Economic Development

Looking at economic development through Helmuth von Moltke’s military glasses

21st century is the time of increased complexity and thus uncertainty. But that doesn’t mean that things weren’t complex and uncertain before. I have found an example of how the German army used to cope with the uncertainty which I would like to share: for others to read it and for me not to forget it. I have put the politics and historical facts regarding WW2 war crimes aside, so please try to do the same.

In war, everything is uncertain.

Helmuth von Moltke, Prussian field marshal

Helmuth von Molke (1800-1891), Prussian military organization and tactical genius, was chief of staff of the Prussian Army for 30 years. His writings shaped German military doctrine in WW1 and WW2. He was well aware that “No plan of operation extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength“.  Moltke believed that, as an answer to uncertainty, the German army should be prepared to improvise. To prepare for improvisation, German military students of the time discussed different scenarios regarding specific situations in an atmosphere where disagreement was expected. Even generals participated in these discussions with students. Using modern language, they were doing group scenario building.

Philip E. Tetlock in his book Superforecasting cites an example of battle in Zorndorf in 1758 between Prussia and Russia, which shows us that criticism was widely accepted. In some extraordinary circumstances, even actions that were more than criticism were tolerated.
During the battle of Zondorf, Prussia’s King Frederick the Great ordered Prussian general Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, who commanded a cavalry unit, to attack enemy units. Seydlitz felt that the time wasn’t right and that his unit would be wasted, so he refused and the messenger returned to King with a rejection. The messenger later returned with the same order: to attack. Seydlitz again refused. Third time messenger came with the same order, but this time King said that if Seydlitz doesn’t obey the command, his head will pay the price. Seydlitz replied that after the battle his head will be at the disposal to the King, but until then he will make use of it. When Seydlitz judged the time is right, he attacked the Russians and turned the battle into Prussian advantage. This story is being told to the new generations of German officers. In other words, German officers are being told to think independently, to discuss, to criticize, and if they absolutely must – and they batter to have a good reason – to disobey the orders.

This isn’t in accordance with the perception of the usual military doctrine, but it is in accordance with the reality on the field.

Auftragstaktik can now be put in the context. Auftragstaktik (known as Mission Command in the US and UK) is a form of military tactics where the emphasis is on the outcome of a mission rather than the specific means of achieving it. Its roots can be traced to 19th-century German armed forces. It was a blend of strategic coherence and decentralized decision making bounded by the principle of commanders telling their subordinates what their goal was, but not how to achieve it.

Auftragstaktik was also used by the German Wehrmacht, and it can be recognized in the order German troops received on May 10 1940 during the assault on Belgium:

Gentleman, I demand that your division completely cross the German borders, completely cross the Belgian borders and completely cross the River Mouse. I don’t care how you do it, that’s completely up to you.“

Command didn’t create a detailed plan on how to achieve this goal based on circumstances headquarters expected units to face. They said, „that’s completely up to you.“ By doing this, they enabled the captain to create a plan based on circumstances he encountered on the field and (if needed) to improvise and to act. They encouraged him to think, not to wait for the detailed instructions.

So what?

Reading about the Auftragstaktik approach was a big insight for me and it was a point where I got interested in military tactics and its relations to approaches used to instigate economic development.

This approach requires people working in the area of economic development to possess real knowledge on how things work and to look for emerging patterns, but most of all it requires a trust to occur between superiors and subordinates (field operatives) inside institutions/organizations working on the economic development. It also requires trust between local institutions/organizations and Governments/donor organizations.

Governments or donor organizations do not possess more knowledge about what is really going on the field than local institutions or organizations, more specifically than people working there. Telling field operatives (or local institutions, organizations) how to take out specific goals is consuming a lot of nerves on both sides, a lot of time is spent and it so often isn’t giving results expected. In short: it doesn’t seem to be effective. And it’s happening all the time at both levels: inside institutions/organizations and between governments/donor organizations (superiors) and local institutions/organizations (subordinates).

Frequent and rapid decisions can be shaped only on the spot according to estimates of local conditions.

Helmuth von Moltke, Prussian field marshal

At the end of WW2, Wehrmacht failed. According to historians, Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler made a mistake when he ordered an attack on Russia and when he took direct control of operations and violated the German military doctrine.  Obviously, I’m glad he did it because my ancestors were on the Allied side in WW2. But nevertheless, Moltke’s ideas about decentralization and constant re-examination in complex, uncertain and changing situations could be re-used in some of the issues we are having today in economic development.


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