Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 1: Jason Bourne and ‘friction’

Last night I watched “The Bourne Ultimatum”, the film about renegade assassin Jason Bourne. In the climax, CIA operative Pamela Landy is faxing a bunch of documents that expose a conspiracy within the agency. She’s racing against the clock – a renegade CIA chief is about to break down the door. Just as the bad guy bursts in, pistol in hand, the last document is sent safely on its way.

If you’ve ever had to fax stuff in a hurry, you’ll know that in real life it never works this way. The machine is turned off, or in power-saver mode. It takes its own sweet time to warm up. It’s out of paper. You punch in the wrong number, or forget to dial an outside line. Then an error message appears. Finally the paper feed jams…

You get the drift. This is a simple illustration of an important concept in On War, the idea of “friction”. In war, friction is an “unseen, all-pervading” element – it’s about how everything can and will go wrong, how things generally don’t go to plan, and how simple things are difficult to do. In theory, war should end in extremes – short duration, a single decisive battle, total destruction. In practice, friction ensures that war is prolonged, confused and fails to result in some or all of the objectives set.

I’m taken with the concept of friction. Why? Because it says a lot about how things work, or don’t work, generally. Anyone who works in a government department, a company, a university and so on, will know how damned difficult it is to get things done, especially when the pressure’s on. Small things jam the system, simple tasks take longer than expected, things go awol, people stuff up. As Clausewitz says, “the difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable…”.

When things go pear-shaped, people assume that it’s due to inadequate organization and control. How many times have you heard someone say, “we need to put in place a system to fix that” or “we need more controls”? Actually, adding more systems and controls is the last thing you need. It makes things more complicated. It increases the chance that things will go wrong. It gives friction more room in which to play.

Clausewitz wrote that great commanders understand friction and its effects. They know how to cope with friction, through courage, composure, determination and grit. They are realistic about what can and can’t be achieved in the face of friction. They keep things simple.

These are insights that government and business managers would do well to ponder. Understanding friction, and how to deal with it, might create organizations that are more resilient, workplaces that are more productive, and managers and employees who enjoy rather than fear their work.

Perhaps managers should be encouraged to read On War too?

7 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 1: Jason Bourne and ‘friction’”

  1. All true.

    When you “go live” with anything, you encounter friction. You are in a rock band. You have rehearsed for several weeks. An amplifier that has worked innocuously fine in practice breaks. You are going to do a presentation you have rehearsed several times. The board you have made unaccountably gets a magic marker smear on it. This stuff happens all the time under increased stress and where the severity of the outcome is particularly extreme. You are going to make a closing argument to the jury and the lapel of the suit you are going to wear is stained.

    So, yeah, everyone should know about friction.

    Amd Clausewitz’s lesson is that in wartime, this phenomenon is way, way worse, and lives are at stake.

  2. Ah! I was going to say something very similar: Anyone who has done anything has experienced friction. Undoubtedly it is worse in war.

    T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men:

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow…

  3. Tom Peters has written about the importance of resilience in business. His post reminded me of something by Field Marshal Lord Wavell.

    After commenting on the British practice of testing military equipment by dropping it off a tower and then burying it in the mud for a few days, he continues:

    Now the mind of the general in war is buried, not merely for 48 hours but for days and weeks, in the mud and sand of unreliable information and uncertain factors, and may at any time receive, from an unsuspected move of the enemy, an unforseen accident, or a treaherous turn in the weather, a bump equivalent to a drop of at least a hundred feet on to something hard. Delicate mechanism is of little use in war; and this applies to the mind of the commander as well as his body; to the spirit of an army as well as to the weapons and instruments with which it is equipped.

  4. Friction is a marvelous concept, one of Clausewitz’s greatest metaphors. Systems thinking as most ppl practice it, by and large, while highly useful at enlarging the mental map of relevant variables tends to forget or at least underestimate the amount of friction present at any given moment, especially in “soft systems” composed of human beings.

  5. People who have spent their careers in “staff” positions generally have much less understanding of friction than people who have been in “line” jobs. By “staff,” I mean here a job in which one analyzes, advises, and recommends, but does not have direct decision-making responsibility or accountability for outcomes.

    In our society as a whole, the ratio of staff to line people seems to have greatly increased, and these staff people seem to have less and less understanding or empathy for the frictions and other issues faced by line people.

  6. IN my military experience, I have seen my own plans and the plans of others shot down because they were planned for the “best case scenario”, ie, everything will go exactly right. It doesn’t take long before you realize that you have to plan for the worst and accept the risks you can’t plan away.

    I’m always amazed when I read of events that came to pass, and hindsight and analysis reveals that the planners were assuming the “best case scenario” would occur.

  7. This is a solid little post.

    I think it’s interesting that CvC notes that often the biggest sources of friction come not from enemy action, but rather from the army itself. Kotare mentioned that often people hanker for new systems to deal with friction, but he rightly points out that such systems only increase the level of complexity, and consequently increase friction (probably because friction is equal parts chance and entropy).

    What people should hanker for instead is this: The KISS Principle! Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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