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Fog of War – Part 1

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One of my early sources of critical thinking is Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general from the nineteenth century. His deeply influential book ‘On War’, published by his wife years after his death, currently belongs to the main ingredients of the virtual eyeglasses I use to view the world, including business, around me.

Clausewitz builds his treatise on the strategies of giants such as Sun Tzu, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, but adds the vital ingredients of human behavior which, in my view, apply to far more important things than war.

One of Clausewitz’s concepts is the Fog of War, which he uses to describe the situation arising right after hostilities have began between the belligerents. It describes the unpredictability and inherent chaos of implementing hundreds of (sometimes conflicting) battle plans conceived during peacetime. As the war progresses, the Fog of War becomes a force of its own, consuming increasing amounts of resources and thus having major negative effects to performance. He postulates that a general’s performance is primarily measured by his level of creative thinking (genius of war) and capability of managing (e.g. pre-empting and avoiding to be consumed by) the Fog of War.

But the Fog of War does not arise from war or technology. It arises from people and their biases and prejudices to solve problems within a familiar framework. In business, I see this happening over and over again, when the environment changes and the task (project) at hand becomes large enough. Think of the new airport in Berlin, or the western metro of Helsinki, both already late for years. The banking crisis of 2008 was another example – everyone knew the ‘fog’, e.g. uncertainty of subprime loans, but system was too big to fail, or was so perceived.

To be continued…

//Pasi

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