Amateurs talk Strategy, Professionals talk Logistics — that is kind of true in IT as well

Humans tend to take whatever occupies their mind and apply it somewhere else. This kind of constant barrage of existing patterns, new insights and observations in our brain can take a weird turn. In this particular case I have been following the news about the war in Ukraine. In war, the first victim is the truth, so reporting on it is a particularly difficult task. These days, however, there is some help for serious analysts, such as social media posts of (seemingly) raw material, an army of fact checkers, public satellite images, eye witness reports (too many to manipulate or repress, except in very locked down countries where practically only monopoly/state media exist.

Using sources such as the reports from The Institute for the Study of War and serious journalistic sources, the picture that emerges is that a key element of the success of Ukraine to fight off the much larger opponent (so far) seems to have been Ukraine’s focus on their opponents’ logistics. By directly constraining and attacking the logistics of the larger opponent, they have seriously undermined the fighting capability of that opponent, with high casualties on the attackers’ side as a consequence. The Russians seem to have been very slow in reacting to this. Only recently, they seem to have started to copy the tactics of the Ukrainians, e.g. by a very visible attack on a fuel depot near Lviv.

“Culture may eat Strategy for breakfast, as they say, but Logistics often considers Strategy to be a rather small snack”

Me. Now.

That first month of fighting in Ukraine is thus a good example of the truth of the dictum: “In war, amateurs talk strategy, but professionals talk logistics”, which goes back to antiquity (Sun Tzu, Alexander), but that became more important when war thoroughly got industrialised: already at the start of the 20th century, an artillery piece may have been capable of shooting as many grenades per day as a 19th-century cannon would have shot during an entire campaign.

It is slightly embarrassing to compare what happens in Ukraine (or any other gruesome war) to what happens in large organisations with complex Business-IT landscapes, but — as observed above — the human mind is one that uses the hodgepodge of existing patterns, insights, and convictions to create meaning out of new observations (see Stanlislas Dehaene’s wonderful book: Consciousness and the Brain). Or out of old observations for that matter.

So, I think about the difficult situations professionals in IT often face, when the amateurs press on about IT strategy, about future states and road maps, about the what. The ‘professionals’ the other hand tend to worry about how to get all of that done, how much of that simple sounding strategy ignores the realities of the now unimaginable complexity of Business-It landscapes? Will we be in control of that landscape? Will it be secure? Can we maintain it? Patch it? Handle calamities? Do we have ‘defence in depth’ in all sorts of domains? Can we change it fast enough if need be?

For the professionals, change in complex Business-IT landscapes is like that ‘logistical nightmare’ of war, and while it helps to have local autonomy in tactics (i.e. Agile, DevOps), the overall success depends a lot on those ‘logistics’, and not that much on strategy. Yes, we want that strategic result and as part of it all those shiny new services for our users, be they customers or employees. We need some sort of plan, because if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson a.k.a Lewis Carroll). But turn the organisation into a big traffic jam where nothing gets through, and nothing will come of your big plans, and one small thing breaking down will let all change grind to a halt. Professionals know this.

According to The Annotated Alice, the phrase “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there” comes from the Talmud. Now, I’ve tried to ascertain if this is true, but I haven’t been able to. There is a lot of talk about roads in the Talmud so it could very well be, but my guess is we are talking about a pre-internet-Wikipedia case of citogenesis (click for explanation). But I digress. As usual.

So definitely: make great plans and try to realise grand ideas. Have a strategy. But pay even more attention to all the other stuff that needs to be done to get that strategy off the starting line. Do not forget to look deeper into everything that must be done (the ‘logistical nightmare’ of getting anything done in IT). Like providing coffee.

It is an old adagium of warfare: Amateurs talk Strategy, Professionals talk Logistics. Maybe surprisingly, this is true in IT as well these days. Maybe it is true in any complex and unpredictable situation, which ‘big IT’ is more and more turning out to be, and for which outdated ideas about addressing this complexity should have been relegated to the scrap heap of history long ago.

P.S.

Of course, in the end, the real IT heroes are those actually creating the new situation, the engineers and analysts who are in the actual ‘fight’:

“I am tempted to make a slightly exaggerated statement: that logistics is all of war-making, except shooting the guns, releasing the bombs, and firing the torpedoes.”

Admiral Lynde D. McCormick

I am tempted likewise to make a slightly exaggerated statement: that providing the right capability and manoeuvrability is all of IT — except building the systems, configuring them and making them run.

Image: (public domain) from when Russians — also led by a dictator by the way — were actually fighting against Nazis.

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