Strategic Thinking: Paradigm Selection

Per­haps the most im­por­tant con­cept in strat­egy is the im­por­tance of op­er­at­ing within the right paradigm. It is ex­tremely im­por­tant to ori­ent to­wards the right style or the right doc­trine be­fore you be­gin im­ple­ment­ing your plan—that could be “no known doc­trine, we’ll have to im­pro­vise”, but if it is you need to know that! If you choose the wrong ba­sic pro­ce­dure or style, you will end up re­fin­ing a plan or method that ul­ti­mately can’t get you to where you want to, and you will likely find it difficult to es­cape.

This is one of the Big Deep Con­cepts that seem to crop up all over the place. A few ex­am­ples:

  • In soft­ware de­vel­op­ment, one form of this er­ror is known as “pre­ma­ture op­ti­miza­tion,” where you fo­cus on op­ti­miz­ing ex­ist­ing pro­cesses be­fore you con­sider whether those pro­cesses are re­ally what the fi­nal ver­sion of your sys­tem needs. If those pro­cesses end up get­ting cut, you’ve wasted a bunch of time; if you end up avoid­ing “wast­ing work” by keep­ing these pro­cesses, the sunk cost fal­lacy may have blocked you from im­ple­ment­ing su­pe­rior ar­chi­tec­ture.

  • In the mil­i­tary, a com­mon mis­take of this type leads to “fight­ing the last war”—the ten­dency of mil­i­tary plan­ners and weapons de­sign­ers to cre­ate strate­gies and weapon sys­tems that would be op­ti­mal for fight­ing a re­peat of the pre­vi­ous big war, only to find that paradigm shifts have ren­dered these meth­ods ob­so­lete. For in­stance, many tanks used early in World War II had been de­signed based on the trench war­fare con­di­tions of World War I and proved ex­tremely in­effec­tive in the more mo­bile style of war­fare that ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped.

  • In com­pet­i­tive gam­ing, this ex­plains what David Sir­lin calls “scrubs”—play­ers who play by their own made-up rules rather than the true ones, and thus find them­selves un­pre­pared to play against peo­ple with­out the same con­straints. It isn’t that the scrub is a fun­da­men­tally bad or in­com­pe­tent player—it’s just that they’ve cho­sen the wrong paradigm, one that greatly limits their abil­ity when they come into con­tact with the real world.

This same limi­ta­tion is pre­sent in al­most ev­ery field that I have seen, and con­sid­er­ing it is crit­i­cal. Be­fore you be­gin in­vest­ing heav­ily in a pro­ject, you should ask your­self whether this is re­ally the right paradigm to ac­com­plish your goals. Over­in­vest­ing in the wrong paradigm has a dou­bly per­ni­cious effect—not only are your im­me­di­ate efforts not as effec­tive as they could be, but it also ren­ders you es­pe­cially vuln­er­a­ble to the sunk cost fal­lacy. Keep in mind that even those who are aware of the sunk cost fal­lacy are not im­mune to it!

There­fore, when mak­ing big de­ci­sions, don’t just jump into the first paradigm that pre­sents it­self, or even the one that seems to make the most sense on ini­tial re­flec­tion. In­stead, re­aly truly con­sider whether this ap­proach is the best one to get you what you want. Look at the goal that you’re aiming for, and con­sider whether there are other ways to achieve it that might be more effec­tive, less ex­pen­sive, or both.

Here are some sam­ple situ­a­tions that can be con­sid­ered paradigm-se­lec­tion prob­lems:

  • Do you re­ally need to go and get a CS de­gree in or­der to be­come a com­puter pro­gram­mer, or will a boot­camp get you started faster and cheaper?

  • Does your or­ga­ni­za­tion’s re­struc­tur­ing plan re­ally hit the core prob­lems, or is it merely ad­dress­ing the most ob­vi­ous sur­face-level is­sues?

  • Will air­craft car­rier-cen­tric naval tac­tics be effec­tive in a fu­ture large-scale con­ven­tional war, or is the air­craft car­rier the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of the bat­tle­ship in WW2?

I don’t nec­es­sar­ily know the an­swers to all these ques­tions—note that only one is even framed as a clear choice be­tween two op­tions, and there are ob­vi­ously other op­tions available even in that case—but I do know that they’re ques­tions worth ask­ing! When it comes time to make big de­ci­sions, eval­u­at­ing what paradigms are available and whether the one you’ve cho­sen is the right one for the job can be crit­i­cal.