Decision Making and Odysseus

24 Feb

All strategies ultimately fail. They fail because of the complex dynamic environment which people and organisations operate in never behave in ways which mirror plans. This tension between the plan and behaviours actually encountered creates a constantly eroding grind on the goals; Clausewitz called it “friction”. Strategies are a great cause of optimism, cognitive bridges into the future, and this is often strategies worst enemy- a focus on the goal while explaining away the complexities of the process, they place too little focus on inevitable “friction”. Many theorists have tried to mathematically model strategy and strategic outcomes to improve decisions, the game theory mini max outcomes immediately spring to mind (Freedman provides an excellent introduction to Schelling and game theory in his book Strategy, 2013), but despite some thought provoking insight, game theory can struggle to get a grip on escalation and escalation as a result of friction-unexpected motives, behaviours, events and goals. Nothing seems to add and subtract its way past friction. So, I’ll go back to mythology for some strategic decision making tips in the face of friction. And Odysseus provides the perfect example (a story I’ll borrow from Freedman, 2013), if you can stomach his ethics.

I would interpret the interaction between people, strategy and friction as situational awareness. This the ability to maintain a focus on a goal; the relevance of cues, patterns and actions to that goal; the ability to make trade-offs between competing sub goals and vitally, when to adjust the goal in light of circumstances. In other words, the ability to work with and adapt to friction, as oppose to drive against it. The role of Odysseus in the myth of Philoctetes provides an example of the ability to maintain situational awareness in the face of friction.

Philoctetes had been gifted the bow and arrow of Hercules which he was taking with him to fight in the Trojan War. On the way he was bitten by a snake on the isle of Lemnos and the wound became very painful and infected. Odysseus, who was a member of the party on Lemnos, grew tired of Philoctetes suffering and so ordered him abandoned on the isle, while everyone else left to fight in the Trojan War. During the war, a seer foretold that the Greeks would need the bow and arrow of Hercules to defeat Troy. So, Odysseus set off to recover the bow from the man he had abandoned. In this version of the myth Odysseus takes with him the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus.

When Odysseus and Neoptolemus arrive back on Lemnos they find Philoctetes alive. Obviously, Philoctetes was not going to be very happy to see Odysseus and hand over the bow of a god, so Odysseus sent in Neoptolemus to handle the negation with a simple brief- get the bow by any means, trickery if needed. The problem was that Neoptolemus was the model of his father Achilles, no victory was worth having unless it was done with honour. In Odysseus’s mind this was not a good approach, it would reduce the sub goal of getting the bow and arrow down to emotional bargaining which could easily go either way. Neoptolemus was prepared to leave the bow if it meant achieving the mission without honour, but Odysseus was applying situational awareness-
• The goal was to win the Trojan War
• Information revealed the Trojan War could not be won without the bow and arrows of Hercules
• The sub goal became- retrieve the bow and arrow, this would take precedence over Odysseus’s previous history with Philoctetes (winning the war was easy to trade off with a difficulty history)
• With Philoctetes alive Odysseus now needed a negotiator to achieve the sub goal- Neoptolemus
• Neoptolemus was not prepared to sacrifice his sense of honour so his personal ethics now put the main goal at risk-winning the Trojan War.

It’s possible to argue that Odysseus was able to maintain sight of the bigger goal and trade off his own feelings accordingly, especially when facing the grind of friction. If the bow was not recovered then the Trojan War would not be won and instead rage on, resulting in further loss of life, kingdoms being left without their leaders for increasing length of time and the welfare of the people being put at risk. Neoptolemus on the other hand lost sight of the bigger goal; his own sense of honour came first, even if it meant sacrificing the war effort.

Naturally there come situations where a Neoptolemus is very much needed. Odysseus though, throughout Greek legend, is a picture of situational awareness-frequently putting aside sub goals which may have been personally advantageous to stay fixed on the bigger picture. The role of Greek legends however are not to provide us perfect examples of decision making, they tell us far more about the conflict between ethics, values and identity in the face of much bigger events. Odysseus is no role model of pure virtue but he does provide a good example of someone who gets things done by remaining situationally aware in the face of friction and the many unexpected events it throws at you.
The lesson here is to develop situational awareness to a degree which alerts you when your personal agenda is putting the higher goal at risk- this is the ability to make trade-offs. Situational awareness is essential for guiding trade-offs in resources, competing goals, values and conflicting arguments amongst people within groups; it will also tell you when it’s time to adapt the higher goals in light of friction. There is also a flip side- it will allow you to locate when the higher goals are compromising ethics to a point people are being put at risk and values are being compromised. The tale of Philoctetes may have suggested to Neoptolemus that it was time to work with people who shared his ethics.

Epilogue- Philoctetes was cured of his snake bite, went to fight in the Trojan War and became a Greek hero, killing Paris at the fall of Troy- with his bow.

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