May 19, 2024

an organization trained to overcome the seeming impossible will have a natural blind spot for the actual impossible

Most readers who have served within a high-level headquarters will have at least once thought to themselves: “This will end badly.” That statement is not meant to be particularly cynical or pessimistic. Rather, it simply recognizes the reality that — by design — large headquarters deal with large problems, some of which are intractable. In short, the nature of strategic- and operational-level command ensures some sub-optimal outcomes. But the can-do military culture can exacerbate the situation when it comes up against a problem that is insoluble or, more commonly, one which requires the institution to either adopt unpalatable measures or to acknowledge unwelcome realities. I call the resulting internal dynamic chasing the delta. Essentially, chasing the delta is the “mood” within a headquarters desperate to fill a hole in a puzzle and willing to jam whatever piece comes first to hand into that space.

Years ago, I witnessed this effect firsthand. On its face, the situation seemed to exemplify how things should work. Senior leaders were discussing an ambitious proposal, one that applied new training technologies to achieve readiness at less cost over the long run. The leaders were giving the idea what seemed to be appropriate scrutiny, raising possible operational and financial second- and third-order effects. A promising idea given at least the veneer of thoughtful consideration: the situation should have been a heartening model of institutional change. Nonetheless, there was something disquieting about the conversation.

After some reflection, the reason became clear ­— we were doing it for the wrong reasons. The problem lay neither with the process nor with the proposal itself. Instead, the fault was the motivation. The idea was being considered not on its own merits, but because there was a need to fill an unanticipated budget shortfall caused by the disappointing results of an earlier good idea, itself brought forward to fix an even earlier shortfall. The disquiet arose from a sense that, once again, a good idea was being oversold to the extent that its delivery would be compromised in an effort to hit unattainable savings. Perhaps even worse, this inadequate response to some deeper problem was delaying the application of far more painful but necessary measures. In short, we were risking a cycle of solving yesterday’s “solutions” with tomorrow’s problems.

At this point, some readers may object that motivations are irrelevant. A good idea is a good idea, even when it is forced on an institution by necessity. Regardless of whether service leaders genuinely sought innovation or were simply “out of money, and so forced to think” should be beside the point. Certainly, the units training with the new technology would never know; neither would they care, so long as they had their kit. The problem is that the wrong motivation can distort how the institution considers and implements an idea. This clouded institutional thinking, depending on the situation, might lead to any number of pitfalls, such as poorly reasoned requirements trade-offs or unrealistic budgets and timelines as a later case study will show.

First, the meaning of the term chasing the delta should be explained. In mathematical terms, the dynamic can arise when organization faces a problem in which the two sides of an equation are hopelessly mismatched, leaving a “delta” (Δ) or difference so large it cannot be solved by normal means. One would hope the result would be an honest institutional reckoning, and this is sometimes the case. But too often, organizations follow the alternative path of chasing the delta.

Returning to the opening example, though the organization had inserted a new variable (the technology proposal) to rectify the inequity (the budget shortfall), the foreboding sense came from an ill-defined mood within the staff. It seemed we were straining to make the idea yield the necessary savings. Under normal conditions, the true value of the idea would likely have been determined dispassionately. But when the organization is chasing a particular delta, the aspect of corrupted motivation comes into play, exerting a pressure for everyone to believe that the offered solution and the available means are magically equivalent to the required value. This not only saddles an otherwise worthy initiative with a burden larger than it can carry, but it also delays the organization’s admission of a crisis. This is critical, because once a crisis is acknowledged, then extraordinary measures that would not otherwise be considered become possible. But crossing that threshold is painful, so institutions sometimes prefer to chase the delta and, therefore, to throw pedestrian ideas at exceptional problems.

Chasing the delta often occurs within institutional settings driven by budget concerns. There were echoes of the earlier incident when a relatively senior official, addressing an internal audience, recently announced the organization had a shortfall of x dollars and was on a quest to find initiatives that would save the required amount. There is a delta, and we are by our own admission chasing it. Perhaps this time we will succeed, but the Department of Defense’s recent past is littered with failed drives for “efficiencies” that began not with a set of ideas but with a fixed budgetary delta to fill.

Failing flagship acquisition programs can also cause an institution to chase the delta. Beginning in the 1990s, Army leadership faced the twin problems of a threatened strategic irrelevance due to the difficulties of projecting large ground forces and a looming tactical obsolescence caused by a purported revolution in in military affairs. The primary solution to this multifaceted problem was to be the Future Combat System (FCS), a technologically ambitious system-of-systems that was to be ready by the 2000s. The FCS would be both strategically deployable and tactically dominant. As a RAND study of the program found, the attempt to address multiple institutional imperatives on an uncompromising schedule led to a rushed, under-resourced initial “system engineering and architecting” process, sometimes conducted by officers without the requisite technical expertise. Significantly, the RAND authors cautiously noted that even with a better process, “it [was] certainly not clear whether that would have saved the FCS program. In hindsight, perhaps the outcome might have been that the significant technical and operational challenges in FCS [would have been] determined earlier and with less overall cost to the Army.” In other words, a more thorough analysis would have demonstrated that what was being asked was impossible.

It is important to note the report never alleges bad faith, overt lies, or a deliberate cover-up. Though there were certainly some doubts at an early stage, without a significant analytical effort, its critics had no more certainty that FCS would fail than its boosters had misplaced belief in its success. In organizations filled with earnest, well-meaning people, chasing the delta is more likely to lead to uncomfortable questions being avoided or glossed over than outright deception. The result, however, is still corrosive.

As Army leadership equated FCS with institutional success and credibility, the stakes mounted and willful ignorance became the norm. The RAND report finds there was a “mindset…that managers needed to maintain a positive attitude to keep people motivated rather than dwelling on problems.” Many readers will have experienced the starkly different environment when an organization is considering an idea as opposed to the idea that is deemed essential to the institution.

the wrong motivation can distort how the institution considers and implements an idea

Chasing the delta can occur within operational settings as well. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. Army faced what might have been an insoluble problem: how to defend Western Europe with the inadequate means allowed by U.S. politics against overwhelming Warsaw Pact forces, in a manner that was both acceptable to allies and that led to desirable strategic outcomes. In the mid-1970s, General William DePuy, the first commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and a strong proponent of quantitative operations research, attempted to reduce the problem to finding a literal mathematical delta. The term battlefield calculus was coined during this period as the Active Defense doctrine (the 1976 edition of FM 100-5, Operations) sought to create tactical conditions by which defending forces would kill their Soviet adversaries at a rate sufficient to yield a North Atlantic Treaty Organization victory. The problem was the numbers did not add up. When one of DePuy’s principal assistants in the development of Active Defense, Lieutenant General Donn Starry, took command of the Germany-based V Corps, Starry concluded that he would run out of troops before defeating the Soviets. This realization led to the development of AirLand Battle when Starry replaced DePuy at TRADOC. The new doctrine sought to balance the equation by using air interdiction, to attrite Soviet follow-on echelons. The deft insertion of a new variable brought the equation closer to a satisfactory solution, though whether it would have solved the problem for which it was devised will (thankfully) never be known.

More often, operational and strategic problems involve fewer quantifiable and predictable cause-and-effect relationships, making it far easier to imagine whatever is necessary to balance the equation. Colonel Celestino Perez, Jr., Ph.D., a strategist and Army War College professor, notes that students are prone to asserting that available ways and means will lead to desired ends without being able to articulate a causal mechanism that would plausibly lead from one to the other. The underlying assumption seems to be that if the given resources are used in the cleverest way possible, then the result must somehow equal “victory” (or at least some acceptable outcome). This has terrifying implications. If we are prone to imagining that whatever is at hand will magically equate to the required value (or end state) in an academic setting with no real consequences for failure, what happens in real world operations?

This is the point in an essay in which a good author proposes a solution. In the spirit of the subject, however, there is no solution, only a condition to be managed. Chasing the delta is an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary military virtue: the “can-do” ethos. The adversity, confusion, and danger of combat can create situations in which it seems impossible to achieve the mission. A key objective of military training and socialization is instilling a relentless will to overcome such challenges. Under normal conditions, this attitude can be reconciled with the clear-eyed objectivity that is fundamental to good decision-making. In extremis, however, the inherent chaos and unpredictability of combat make a bias toward the indomitable at the expense of the intellectual workable; because at the tactical level, it is so difficult to predict the outcomes of actions that a tendency to fudge calculations (within reason) is an asset. “Fortune favors the bold,” and all of that.

But an organization trained to overcome the seeming impossible will have a natural blind spot for the actual impossible. And as the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott observes in Rationalism in Politics, “To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.” Just as throwing a clearly impossible administrative burden on subordinates to work out for themselves is corrosive, it is even more the case with key institutional or operational missions. Their ethos might predispose military organizations to chase the delta for a time, but there will always be a reckoning in the end. This moment should come as soon as possible. Leaders should sense the increased danger when a particular program, outcome, or initiative is deemed critical to organizational reputation or success, and push themselves to seek contrary information by asking dangerous questions. Professional education can assist them by creating a cultural suspicion of simple, linear solutions in which just one or two elements bear the entire load of finding a solution. The assumption should be that difficult problems require complex, multi-faceted solutions, in which some elements will inevitably fail to produce anticipated results. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, organizational processes should be engineered to include points of explicit reassessment, moments to free people from the sense that the organization is on a foreordained path to a dark future. So long as the military continues to face difficult problems, the conditions that cause organizations to chase the delta will persist. With awareness, however, we can strive to face those challenges in ways that preserve the best of the military ethos without sacrificing honest assessment and planning.



JP Clark is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a student in the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2020. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo: Army National Guard Infantrymen from the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team seize a town from the enemy during a 2019 rotation at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by SGT Mason Cutrer


  1. One would think Afghanistan is a good example of the can-do attitude leading us astray. We can’t fix the gang problem in Chicago, let along fix Afghanistan. Unlike Chicago, we don’t speak the same language, understand the culture, understand the nuances of decades of blood feuds, comprehend the religion, etc. We can’t seem to admit it’s mission impossible to turn Afghanistan into a semblance of functioning state or even a non-terrorist safehaven, let alone turn them into something Switzerland.

  2. I’m not familiar with the mathematics involved in organizational theory. In my mathematical experiences, delta is neither large nor small, but rather any sized offset. In calculus, it is conceptually portrayed as small though it doesn’t have to be small for the techniques to work.

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