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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-43 – COL Benjamin W. Buchholz – Planning for Positive Strategic Shock in the Department of Defense

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-43 – COL Benjamin W. Buchholz – Planning for Positive Strategic Shock in the Department of Defense

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    A concept of positive strategic shock would benefit the US Department of Defense’s planning processes. Some US doctrine demonstrates awareness of the need to plan for negative strategic shocks but lacks consideration of positive strategic shock—any shock with a non-zero-sum outcome—which could create a situation where the Department of Defense misses opportunities. This podcast clarifies the term “positive strategic shock,” provides a brief review of where and how planning for any sort of strategic shock currently occurs, and makes recommendations based on three methods for thinking about strategic shock.

    Read the article:

    Episode transcript: Planning for Positive Strategic Shock in the Department of Defense
    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    You’re listening to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production focused on national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Colonel Benjamin W Buchholz, author of “Planning for Positive Strategic Shock in the Department of Defense,” which was featured in the winter 2022–23 issue of Parameters. Buchholz is a foreign area officer and recent Army War College distinguished graduate. He’s published four books—The Tightening Dark, Sirens of Manhattan, One Hundred and One Knights, and Private Soldiers, as well as numerous articles and shorter works.

    Thanks for joining me today, Colonel Buchholz. I’m glad you’re here.

    Col. Benjamin W. Buchholz

    Thank you, I appreciate it.


    You talked about positive strategic shock in your article. Please expand on that concept.


    Positive strategic shock is not a new term, but it is a term that I’m using in a different way than has been used previously. In the planning literature that’s out there right now, there is a thing called positive strategic shock, but it’s used to identify the delta between when a negative shock occurs and then an organization catches back up to status quo or to a median level of performance. And that delta is called, sometimes, positive strategic shock. In my opinion, that’s not actually positive, that’s just making up for a negative. So I wanted to look at the case where something truly positive happens in an environment, and so I define that as an incident that is non-zero-sum—something that’s good for all parties—a win win situation.


    Can you give me some examples of negative and positive strategic shock?


    I think it’s important to mention, you know, that this paper is about strategic shocks. So, we can all think of a lot of tactical- and operational-level shocks which are more on the weapons systems and that sort of thing, but for something to be really strategic it needs to change doctrine, change the way cultures think about things, change the world order in a way. So, we’re talking about real igh-level stuff. The paper goes into a lot of detail on that. Maybe an unfortunate amount of detail.

    Probably the more interesting portion of this is what’s the difference between negative and positive, and that can be kind of a subjective answer. So, in order to make it an objective answer, the way I define it is that negative is zero-sum thinking, whereas positive is a non-zero-sum. And that’s a complex way to say a win-win situation. Where all parties benefit. Where rising water, you know, floats all boats. There are lots of ways to say that sort of thing.

    I think in DoD we overly fixate, and for good reason, on negative shocks. So, the adversary has developed some new system, some new methodology, some new culture, even, that we saw in the Cold War with communism. Whereas, what I’m really trying to say in this paper is that there’s an opposite end of this spectrum that sometimes things happen in the culture that are positive in a non-zero-sum way. Examples of that would be things like, even though it’s sort of a political football right now . . . vaccines, I think you can really say across the board, have had a positive strategic shock. Another good example is refrigeration. I think that’s a really good one. You know, who has not benefited from having the ability to have food be refrigerated? You know there’s really no a lot of losers in that. The last one would probably be the Internet. That’s been pretty much a positive across the board. And where this really goes is if the DoD is not postured to gain from positive strategic shocks, it could be to the detriment of the organization and America, as a whole if, we’re really not thinking about that and how to ride those wave tops.


    Give us a brief overview, please, of where and how planning for any sort of shock currently occurs.


    Well, strangely enough, as I dug into this topic, it turns out the DoD doesn’t do a lot of planning against strategic shock. We plan against all kinds of different scenarios. The planning apparatus in DoD is very strong—branches and sequels everywhere and all kinds of plans on the shelf and contingency planning. However, we’re most comfortable planning against what Donald Rumsfeld and strategic planners before him called the “known unknown,” which is basically this safe middle area of things that we can plan against because it’s not too speculative.

    However, those things are not actually where most of the growth and change in the world comes from, at least according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan (and who I rely on pretty heavily in some of the arguments in this paper). Most of the growth happens on the speculative ends of shock. Either negative shock that no one sees coming or positive shock, and he talks about both of those. And that is really more of an unknown unknown. And generally, planners look at the unknown unknown as too wildly speculative to want to plan against it. And I totally agree with that. I think you can’t expend limited planning resources and budget and stuff against speculation. However, Taleb and other scholars have techniques for planning against both of those ends—the negative end and the positive end. And I think we do OK against the negative end because those techniques are to have a organization that’s robust against shock, and that means that it has redundant systems and that those systems are survivable. And because the Army and the DoD, as a whole, has dealt with negative strategic shock throughout its history, it’s become good at those things. However, on the positive side, redundancy and survivability and having a conservative mindset, an organizationally conservative mindset doesn’t actually do any good because if everybody leaps ahead and the organization is designed to pull back towards a status quo, we actually lose a little bit of the benefit of the positivity.

    So, what Nassim Taleb argues for is that we really need to be exposed to positive shock. We need to have lots of little feelers and sensors out there and then let those feelers and sensors matriculate upwards some of the benefits that they’re experiencing when something happens in the environment.


    What are your recommendations for thinking about strategic shock?


    One organization that we do have within the military is the Center for Army lessons learned. They do something like this where elements out in the field can trickle up good ideas, and then as those ideas take root they can be propagated across the domains in DoD. One particular recommendation is to replicate that structure more broadly. Another thing that is an easy win-win is to just include both in the planning processes and in any DoD-chartered analysis (like out through Rand Corporation or others who do thought work) a requirement to consider positive and negative strategic shock in planning rather than just plan against known trend lines against that known unknown space. So, looking at the far ends where the growth in the change occurs would be a good thing to mandate.

    And then the third recommendation that comes out of the paper is really to incorporate a concept of strategic shock in various levels of education in JPME-type courses. There is an interesting way, as well, to identify when an environment is ripe for disruption, for shock, and, you know, several different things identified by researchers that can point you in a direction to look in that direction for or that environment for strategic shock to emerge. And those characteristics are trust within scientific communities, the emergence of scientific anomolies, the development of new instrumentation, increases in ineffective communication, and the presence of a political and economic culture that values science research. So those criteria, I think, could be woven into an approach that is taught, that is mandated into planning processes, and that is mandated into contracts for organizations who are doing planning on behalf of the DoD.


    Have any final thoughts before we go?


    One thing that was really interesting to me in this work was just trying to define what positive is and look at positivity through a DoD lens because we’re not necessarily an organization that’s geared to do that. We’re geared to look at worst-case scenarios. To be prepared for contingencies. Emergencies. For war. But I think that there is a benefit to looking at the positive and cases where a non-zero-sum event like vaccines, refrigeration, the Internet lifts everybody up around us and make sure that DoD as an organization doesn’t miss important benefits when something like that happens.


    I do have one more question, if you’ll entertain it. I’m curious what inspired this article. Why did you decide to write it?


    Well, that’s a good question. I think I was really interested in looking at DoD culturally. This question of DoD as a conservative organization, which it should be because it’s designed to protect and be robust and survivable. But how does that interface in an environment where society could take, you know, a very positive leap forward, as an inherently conservative organization well-poised to enjoy the benefits of something like that? Or does it become a drag on that situation? And this was one way to get into that overall larger theoretical idea.


    Well, thank you so much. There’s definitely a lot to think about here, and I really appreciate you sharing your insights on the topic.


    Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate you having me on the podcast.


    If you’d like to dig deeper into the topic of planning for positive strategic shock in the DoD, visit, look for volume 52, issue 4.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, you can find us on any major podcast platform.



    Date Taken: 12.16.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:08
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74957
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718220.mp3
    Length: 00:11:30
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 43
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

    Web Views: 11
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