Pass surfaces and swarm gaps: Strategic agility in the US Marine Corps

My last post discussed Warfighting, the US Marine Corp manual that characterizes combat as disorderly, uncertain, fluid and plagued by friction that makes “the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.” This post focuses on resource allocation in turbulence, specifically how an officer with limited troops, ammunition, and attention can commit the resources under his control to achieve the greatest impact.

Allocating scarce resources entails difficult trade-offs even in stable circumstances. But Marines face the added complications of a situation in flux, acute time pressure, incomplete and often conflicting data, an enemy attempting to anticipate and thwart their plans, all with life and death at stake. Warfighting outlines principles that help Marine officers allocate resources in real time, without resorting to the fiction that they can predict how battle will unfold.  Below is my synthesis of the Marine Corps’s principles as they relate to resource allocation in turbulence:

Plunge in without overplanning. Officers can plot strategy in the map room, but battles are won or lost in the field. Marine Corps officers plan, of course, but they also recognize the limitations of their plans. Not even the best informed or most experienced officer, can foresee how an engagement will unfold. Rather than spend endless hours honing the perfect plan, Marines develop a good enough plan. Many follow the 70 percent solution— if they have 70 percent of the information, do 70 percent of the analysis, and feel 70 percent confident, they proceed. Once in the field, they can adapt their plan in light of facts on the ground. Marines don’t succeed by getting their plan right the first time but by finding out where it is wrong (and fixing it) quicker than the enemy revises his plan.

Reconnaissance pull, versus plan push. In reconnaissance, a forward unit advances ahead of the rest of the troops to assess an unfamiliar situation, including terrain, weather, civilian support, road conditions, and enemy deployments that lie ahead. Reconnaissance, at its heart, is a process of advancing into a shifting situation, observing incongruities, and modifying a plan in real time. Although troops cannot know exactly what they will find, reconnaissance turns up new information that Marines use to reformulate their understanding of the situation. Recognizing that their ingoing plan is provisional and subject to revision in light of anomalous information, reconnaissance troops remain alert to anything that is out of place. The advance is pulled forward by reconnaissance rather than pushed forward by dogged adherence to a preexisting course of action. (For an in-depth discussion of reconnaissance pull by the man who coined the term, see William S. Lind’s Maneuver Warfare Handbook).

Send out multiple probes. When advancing into turbulence, a prudent Marine officer sends out probes in different directions to broaden the search for new information and create a more rounded picture of the situation.  Successful reconnaissance also requires outstanding people who combine the alertness to notice the unexpected, the intellectual flexibility to modify their ingoing assumptions, with the tenacity to keep moving forward.

Pass surfaces and swarm gaps. Marines use the term “surfaces” to describe an enemy’s physical stronghold and moments when the adversary is on guard, and “gaps” to describe circumstances of enemy vulnerability. Marines sometimes compare reconnaissance to groping their way blindfolded along a wall of resistance, tapping to find where the wall is strongest and where cracks exist. Rather than trying to  punch their way through enemy strong points, they “pass surfaces” by sidestepping entrenched resistance. Marines “swarm gaps” by piling into any breach they discover, calling additional troops to follow them. The British military historian Captain B.H. Liddell Hart compared such an advance to water wearing away an obstacle:

“If we watch a torrent bearing down on each successive bank or earthen dam in its path, we see that it first beats against the obstacle, feeling and testing it at all points. Eventually it finds a small crack at some point. Through this crack pour the first driblets of water and rush straight on. The pent-up water on each side is drawn towards the breach….wearing away the earth on each side and so widening the gap. Simultaneously the water behind pours straight through the breach between the side eddies which are wearing away the flanks. Directly it has passed through it expands to widen once more the onrush of the torrent. Thus as the water pours through in ever-increasing volume the onrush of the torrent swells to its original proportions, leaving in turn each crumbling obstacle behind it. Thus Nature’s forces carry out the ideal attack, automatically maintaining the speed, the breadth, and the continuity of the attack. Moreover, the torrent achieves economy of force by progressively exploiting the soft spots of the defence.”

Finish strong.  Multiple probes, light taps, and quick retreats can degenerate into a tentative advance that hinders troops from exploiting opportunities with vigor as they arise. To avoid the risk of missing opportunities, Warfighting reminds Marines that they must be prepared for an abrupt switch from reconnaissance to full-out attack, yanking resources from other uses and concentrating them to exploit an opportunity to the hilt.

My next post will discuss how managers and entrepreneurs can follow these principles to allocate resources in turbulent markets.

Leading in turbulent times

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.

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