Everything always takes longer than you think. But why?

Originally published in the Naval Review, August 2017

In March 2017 Melissa Dahl penned an article for NYMag.com entitled Everything Always Takes Longer Than You Think[i].  She highlights a body of work, notably by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, that reveals a cognitive bias known as the Planning Fallacy.  Essentially, this bias leads us to be overly optimistic about how long tasks take to achieve.  In fact, as Oliver Burkeman wrote in the Guardian in 2008[ii], this effect is present even when you are aware of the fact that the task you’re embarking on will take longer than you think and so you adjust your estimate accordingly (known as Hofstadter’s Law).  Burkeman proposes that, counter-intuitively, we should do less detailed planning (since the effort is wasted in any case) and just get on with it.  In the extreme he suggests that one should eschew planning altogether.  This is probably ok for relatively simple, or at least non-complex, tasks such as sorting our car insurance or writing a newspaper article, but really becomes inadequate when trying to manage a complex programme of work.  But, he is right insomuch as the reductionist approach to managing complexity repeatedly fails to accurately forecast completion dates. The same applies to costs by the way which, in some circumstances, can be traded against time (or quality) as captured by this nifty internet meme:


We can all think of plenty of examples: The Millennium Dome, Wembley Stadium, the London Olympics (on time and brilliant, but significantly over the original cost estimate[iii]), various large scale IT programmes, the Sydney Opera House, the Scottish Parliament and, yes, a whole bunch of high profile Defence acquisition programmes[iv], and so forth.  Now I am specifically not blaming the managers of these programmes or pointing the finger at anyone.  I am a systems thinker when it comes to the analysis of such problems and try hard to take a ‘Black Box Thinking[v]’ approach, as described by Matthew Syed in his superb book of that name[1].  Few people in any profession go to work each day to do a bad job, and most are keen to do a great job.  Where common themes emerge, such as this, one must not look at the individuals but at the inherent nature of the systems in which they operate if we want to make things better.  That is not to say that we should shy away from the brutal hard facts of failure[2], [vi] and we must look hard at what could be done better in both managing realistic expectations and optimisation of programme delivery. Satisfaction is to be found where the two coincide!  I shall stick to an analysis of the former. There are a number of factors at play here: firstly, managing the work is not forecasting.  Burkeman’s exhortation not to plan is at odds with the famous, and oft-quoted, wisdom from successful industrialist Sir John Harvey-Jones:

“Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.[vii]

Can we reconcile these 2 views?  We can if we realise that the reliable forecasting of a programme’s outturn is a subtly different thing to the managing of the work necessary to deliver it.  A reductionist approach is absolutely necessary to break down a large, complex task into manageable work packages and jobs that can be subcontracted out or allocated to different divisions of the workforce, down to individual workers.  These tasks need to be coordinated, resourced and the interdependencies managed.  Planning will help to achieve this but the more complex the programme, the more fragile that plan will be to contact with reality. That is not to say that the generation of the plan is a futile activity, in fact (as in war) it is wholly necessary:


But the plan cannot be an indicator of the outcome, for several reasons. Firstly, the plan will contain only what is known, and what is known about what is known.  That is to say that we might understand that a certain task needs to be performed and have a good understanding of the time and cost of that activity.  To borrow from Rumsfeldian Logic, let us call this a known-known.  A known-unknown would be something that we knew needed to be done but (perhaps because we were doing it for the first time) were unsure about the resource (time/cost/etc) necessary to achieve it[3].  Assuming that we can satisfactorily quantify this uncertainty, it can be classified as a risk and managed accordingly.  The trouble, of course, is that the interaction between risks is a matter of complexity (more of which in a moment).  What the plan completely fails to account for are the unknown-knowns and the unknown-unknowns. Unknown-knowns are those things that we don’t know need to be done, and will emerge over time, but once we know they need to be done we have a reasonable idea of how long it might take – the need to re-work some element of the programme, for instance.  Since we’ve done it before we should have a reasonable idea of how much resource (time and money) it will consume.  Finally, there are the unknown-unknowns; those things that we did not expect to have to do and have little idea about their scope. In either case, it’s not just that these things are unknown but in a complex programme they are, in fact, unknowable.  This is not, therefore, incompetence or ineptitude on the part of those running the programme but rather an epistemological limit on the certainty with which the programme can be planned. Where there is a flaw it is overconfidence in the reliability and completeness of the plan itself.

The business of the unpredictability of complex systems (including such things as complex programmes) is dealt with by the incomparable Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his various books[4].  In the prologue to Antifragile[viii], he observes that:

“Complex systems are full of interdependencies – hard to detect – and nonlinear responses…… Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events.”

He goes on, in a later chapter, to specifically apply this to the business of programme management.  Observing that there is an “obvious asymmetry” in projects, especially ones that are IT heavy, where uncertainty drives the programme in only one direction i.e. towards increased time and cost: “So, on a timeline going from left to right, errors add to the right end, not the left end of it[ix].”

Obviously, it is much easier to forecast how long something will take if you’re not doing it for the first time. You will have a much clearer understanding of the length of time it will take to build the tenth of a class of ships, for example, as opposed to the first which is in essence a prototype, simply because there is a great deal less uncertainty.

There is also the challenge of resolution.  As an analogy, if we measure the coastline of an island using a relatively small scale map we are likely to underestimate the actual distance that we would need to walk to circumnavigate the coastline of that island. Why? Because when measuring on the map we will smooth out the meanderings of the costal path such that when we measure, by walking, in the actual resolution of our stride length we will discover that more steps are required than those that we estimated from the map.  The more complicated the coastline, the greater our error will be.  And so it is with trying to predict the outcome of a complex programme from the plan – it will always take more steps than you estimated to navigate the intricacies of reality that were smoothed out in the planning phase.  So, if there are immutable limits on our ability to predict, against uncertainty, from a reductionist analysis of our programme of interest, are there better methods of forecasting?

Philip Tetlock has a long career of researching the art and science of prediction and has written about it in his excellent book Superforecasting (co-authored with Dan Gardner).  His research shows that people who are good at forecasting tend to use a common set of techniques:

  • Unpack the question into components.
  • Distinguish as sharply as you can between the known and the unknown and leave no assumption unscrutinised.
  • Adopt the outside view and put the problem into a comparative perspective that downplays its uniqueness and treats it as a special case of wider class of phenomena.
  • Then adopt the inside view that plays up the uniqueness of the problem.
  • Also, explore the similarities and differences between your views and those of others – and pay special attention to prediction markets and other methods of extracting wisdom from crowds.
  • Synthesise all these different views into a single vision.
  • Finally express your judgement as precisely as you can using a finely grained scale of probability[x].

Where many programme forecasts seem to come unstuck is the inability to take the ‘outside perspective’. This means looking at other comparable programmes and seeing how similar or different your particular programme is from that.  Say you were initiating a programme to develop and manufacture a brand-new model of airliner. A good outside view would be to look at previous such programmes (across the industry) and see how far out their original estimates of time and cost were.  If they were all, say, between 50-100% underestimated at the start of the programme it would be sensible to add this margin to your own estimate from inside the programme.  The staging of Olympic Games is another intriguing example. Games overrun (in cost) with 100% consistency with a real-terms average[5] of 179%[xi].  So why don’t Olympic Games organisers simply multiply their original estimate by 1.8 times when submitting their bids?  Well the answer, surely, is that they want to win the bid! And by “they” I mean everyone involved, including those that provide the money which is, of course, predominantly the Government whose money comes from the taxpayer (who also want the bid to be won, but might not have realised that they are collectively underwriting the cost). Actually, for all public-sector programmes, and many large corporations, there is a theme here which Taleb describes as the ‘Agency Problem[xii]’.  This means that the person making the decision is not the ‘owner’ and thus isn’t actually on the hook to pay the cost of any hidden risk or expense that might become apparent at a later date.  It is much easier to write cheques that other people will have to cash.  That is not to say, of course, that winning the bid to host the Olympic Games or embarking on a major change or acquisition programme isn’t the right thing to do, but we have a choice about how optimistic or realistic we wish to be about the costs involved.  And a true forecast of costs, derived from Tetlock’s advice, might seem unaffordable.  Such unaffordability will inevitably be challenged, especially when the reductionist method can be used to gloss over the inherent uncertainty, smooth out the meandering path and ignore the derived heuristics from relevant past experience.  The programme thus gets the green light but there is an inevitable and unpleasant surprise around the corner.

Once such surprises manifest it is convenient to blame the contractors or the teams running the programme as VAdm Bob Cooling did recently in The News[xiii], Portsmouth’s local newspaper.  Admiral Cooling identified specific problems in time, cost and performance in Defence acquisition programmes[6], and noted the similarities between currently running programmes and past ones.  What the Admiral didn’t describe was that it is the failure of forecasting, as a result of the inherent and unaccounted for uncertainty in complex programmes, that is at the heart of these delays.  That they take longer or cost more than expected is largely as a result of unrealistic expectations rather than ineptitude or fecklessness on the part of those delivering the programme.

So, what is to be done? Well, assuming that you genuinely want to stop embarking on projects which are outside of your budget (be it time or cost) an incentive structure needs to be created that avoids the Agency Problem, where decision makers have genuine ‘skin in the game’ and stand to lose if the decisions they make turn out to have hidden costs that were not accounted for at the time (in the form of uncertainty or risk).  If you’re taking significant personal risk, you will allow for a greater margin of error!  The problem here is that the organisation is, effectively, contracting out the risk to the individual who would face sanctions if this were to manifest. Such a system has been put in place for financial institutions where, following the 2007/8 crisis:

“Under section 36 of the UK Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, it is a criminal offence for a senior manager in a financial institution to make a decision that causes that institution, or any other financial institution which is a member of the same group, to fail[xiv].”

This offence can be punished with up to 7 years in prison or an unlimited fine.  It would be rational for individuals charged with such responsibility to be paid to carry it, and in financial institutions they are.  For Government and other industry sectors, contracting out the risk of cost or programme overruns to individuals or companies would be significantly more expensive (at least up front) than ‘The Crown’ or Shareholders carrying the risk.  But some system could, potentially, be devised of delayed incentivisation such that those who approve a programme’s time/cost/performance parameters are held accountable for the final outturn.  For programmes that run over decades this may be completely unworkable and, in any case, I detect little appetite for this in Government Departments so we may simply have to live with the consequences.

In conclusion then, I set out to explain “why everything takes longer than you think”.  There are cognitive biases at play here, notably the Planning Fallacy, but it is the inherently uncertain nature of complex programmes that makes them so hard to predict.  And given the fact that only certain natures of information about a programme can be captured and assessed for risk, the effect as other information is revealed will (virtually) always be to increase the time required and/or cost of the programme, or to decrease the quality of the product. Methods do exist, however, that would make our predictions more accurate but the unwelcome increase in time and cost exposed by such forecasts, and the fact that they are not underpinned by ‘known’ information, means that they are largely unused in circumstances where the Agency Problem is prevalent. Changing the incentive structure so that decision makers at a programme’s initiation (and at key milestones along the way) are held tangibly accountable for the programmes outturn would improve such decision making but at an upfront cost – why would anyone rationally accept having such skin in the game for free?  It seems to me, therefore, that ‘things taking longer than you think[7]’ is just something that we will need to learn to live with – a problem to be managed, not a puzzle to be solved.  But at least you now know why.




[1] Please read it, it is genuinely brilliant.

[2] “[Failure] can be thought of as the gap between what we hoped would happen, and what actually did happen.” vi

[3] Actually, the difference between a known-known and a known-unknown is continuum rather than binary scale, but it works for the purposes of illustrating the point – high certainty vs low certainty.

[4] Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan and Antifragile.

[5] London 2012 was better than average with only a 101% cost overrun in real terms!

[6] Which were saw above are tradeable against each other.

[7] Especially complex programmes.

[i] Dahl, M. (2017). Everything Always Takes Longer Than You Think. [online] Science of Us. Available at: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/03/why-everything-always-takes-longer-than-you-think.html?mid=full-rss-scienceofus [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[ii] Burkeman, O. (2017). Oliver Burkeman on why everything takes longer than you think. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/aug/02/healthandwellbeing.psychology [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[iii] Newstatesman.com. (2017). London Olympics exceed initial budget by £6.52bn. [online] Available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/economics-blog/2012/10/london-olympics-exceed-initial-budget-652bn [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[iv] Harding, T. (2017). Nimrod destruction cost taxpayer £3.4bn as MoD ignored ‘cost implications’, MPs say. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9072073/Nimrod-destruction-cost-taxpayer-3.4bn-as-MoD-ignored-cost-implications-MPs-say.html [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[v] Syed, M. 2015. Black Box Thinking, London: John Murray (Publishers).

[vi] Ibid., p.55.

[vii] Harvey-Jones, J. (2017). Quote about planning by John Harvey-Jones on Quotations Book. [online] QuotationsBook.com. Available at: http://quotationsbook.com/quote/30479/ [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[viii] Taleb, N.N. 2013. Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, London: Penguin Books. p.7

[ix] Ibid,. p.285.

[x] Tetlock, P. and Gardner, D. 2016. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, London: Random House Books. p153.

[xi] Flyvbjerg, B. and Stewart, A. (2017). Olympic Proportions: Cost and Cost Overrun at the Olympics 1960-2012. 1st ed. [ebook] Oxford: Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, p.3. Available at: http://eureka.sbs.ox.ac.uk/4943/1/SSRN-id2382612_(2).pdf [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[xii] Ibid., Taleb. p430

[xiii] Portsmouth.co.uk. (2017). Royal Navy admiral blasts delays in delivering top military projects. [online] Available at: http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/our-region/portsmouth/royal-navy-admiral-blasts-delays-in-delivering-top-military-projects-1-7919271 [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].

[xiv] http://www.hoganlovells.com. (2017). Criminal liability for bank directors? A look at the United Kingdom and South Africa. [online] Available at: https://www.hoganlovells.com/en/publications/criminal-liability-for-bank-directors-a-look-at-the-united-kingdom-and-south-africa [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].


An Officer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

An Officer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

Originally published in CCLKOW ProChat on 4 Apr 2016

“I always say that it’s about breaking the rules. But the secret of breaking rules in a way that works is understanding what the rules are in the first place.”   – Rick Wakeman

As military officers we are surrounded by rules, regulations, policy, protocols, doctrine, instructions, orders (both standing and ephemeral) and, indeed, laws – all of which we are supposed to adhere to[1].  As part of a disciplined fighting Service it is incumbent upon each of us not only to know what all of these constraints on our behaviour are, but to apply them in the leadership of our teams.  They enable the complex organisations of the military to be managed (more or less) effectively.  They allow for, inter alia, the regimentation of affairs, legal compliance, fairness to our people, good order, coherence and consistency across (and between) our Armed Services, interoperability and the safe conduct of our business[2].  In short they prevent chaos. For some years now the Royal Navy has been running a recruitment campaign with the strapline “Life without Limits”.  Personally, I think this is very strange as it is difficult to think of a more regulated lifestyle than a sailor at sea, especially on operations.  And yet, as commanders and leaders we are required to deal with real situations and apply our judgement to each set of circumstances to do what is right to achieve our Commander’s intent.  In my experience, this often means that the rules need to be broken (or at least reinterpreted) in order to achieve the aim.  In such circumstances how to we as commanders decide on the best course of action?

When exhorting his officers to seize the initiative and deliver success in spite of the strictures of bureaucracy, the outgoing First Sea Lord[3] frequently used the phrase “Be bold. Take risk. Fear nothing.”  This is the Nelsonian way.  But how do we judge which rules we ought to break and when?  When should we turn a ‘Nelsonian Eye[4]’ to our orders?  When should we obey them and inform our superior commander that we are unable to comply with his or her instructions?  The answer, as alluded to by Admiral Zambellas, is to take risk.  But risk is something very specific.  It is not a cavalier gamble, that is simply negligence; rather it is a careful analysis of the likelihood and impact of an adverse situation manifesting itself.  Once these are understood, mitigations should be devised and implemented to reduce both the likelihood and the impact of an undesirable outcome.  This must then be weighed carefully against the likelihood and benefits of success.  A sensible, balanced and defensible decision can then be taken.  Where this course of action contravenes the rules you, as the decision maker, need to take responsibility and reassure your subordinates that you are doing so.

Warrant Officers and Senior Ratings[5] have (in general) spent their careers implementing the rules to manage the delivery of the functions for which they are responsible. Taking them into a situation where the hard and fast rules that they are used to working with become temporarily negotiable and ambiguous requires careful leadership and clarity of explanation.  They need to trust you, and you need to be worthy of that trust, because if it goes bad you need to have the moral courage to take responsibility. But good decisions can go bad, just as bad decisions can go well.  You need to make sure that the decision is defensible.  If it is not, then it probably isn’t the right decision in any case and you need to think again.  Asking yourself the question “how would I explain this at the Court Martial?” isn’t about covering your back, it’s about calibrating your moral compass in opaque circumstances.

When at sea as Head of the Weapon Engineering Department in one of the Royal Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare frigates I developed a helpful mental and linguistic model to aid me with this process.  By agreement, it also formed the basic structure of the conversations about such issues that I would have with the Commanding Officer (CO).  The CO hated being told that I couldn’t do something when he knew full well that I could but that the rules didn’t allow it.  So I agreed that we would discuss such things in the following terms: Could – Should – Would.  In the first instance I would explain what could be done, what was physically possible given the resources at our disposal, without any of the constraints of the rules.  I would then explain what should be done to be compliant with the rules, regulations, policy, etc.  Finally, we would have a conversation about what we would do, under what circumstances and when the operational imperative would justify setting aside certain rules in order to achieve the intent.  It worked.  I never told him something was impossible when it wasn’t, but we also (frequently) made defensible risk-based decisions to break the rules when the circumstances justified it. He’s a Rear Admiral now and I was promoted from that job too, so we must have been doing something right.  Maybe we were just lucky but experience suggests that taking a deliberate and structured approach to thinking about and taking risk may have helped.

@FightingSailor                                                                                March 2016


Recommended further reading:

 Gardner, Dan. Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Virgin Books (London: 2009).

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2nd Ed). Penguin Books (London: 2007).


[1] I will group all of these under the term ‘rules’ for convenience in this article

[2] Or at least as safe as possible.  The enemy will try to do us harm, we really ought not to do it to ourselves.

[3] Admiral Sir George Zambellas, Head of the Royal Navy.

[4] At the battle of Copenhagen in 1801 Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sent a signal to the Fleet ordering them to withdraw. Nelson pressed his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal”. He pressed home his attack and secured victory for the British. – Forrester, C.S., Nelson. Chatham Publishing (London: 1929) and Hibbert, Christopher. Nelson A Personal History. (Basic Books: 1994).

[5] Enlisted sailors, Petty Officer and above.

It’s about the Team.

Happy New Year.  I’m not one for New Years’ resolutions, but I am sorely tempted this year after I watched a brilliant TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan.  In essence the talk is about the importance of the team over individuals, and the leader’s role in creating the conditions and culture for the team to flourish. Where this is done well teams perform better and, because the team is creating the solutions and the value as opposed to dancing to the tune of a dictatorial director, diversity and social cohesion amongst the team enhance overall outcomes.  I wrote about the importance of diversity for high performance (amongst other issues) in my blog on Women in the Armed Forces last year and how, in my experience, it leads to superior teams.  Ms Heffernan explains it far better in her talk than I can and I would highly recommend taking 15 mins to watch it.

Her lecture chimed with me as many of the points she raised about the importance of the team resonated with my own leadership philosophy, which I committed to print as in 2015 I prepared to take on the role of the Commander (Weapon Engineer) in HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.  We put it into practice as we formed up the Department, moved onboard the ship and took her to sea for the first time, bringing her home to Portsmouth in August 2017.  I have reproduced it below should it be of interest or in any way helpful.  I would, as always, be interested in your views and feedback and, importantly, your own philosophies of leadership. Like all of our skills, leadership only improves through iterative practise, honest feedback and critical reflection.

As for the New Year’s resolution: Ms Heffernan talks about the importance of ‘Social Capital’ – that mortar that holds the bricks of the team together, which is especially important when the pressure comes on.  This is generated by stepping away from the desk (and especially the email inbox), taking the time to get to know your team mates and developing shared experiences, and thus common bonds. We are good at this in the Royal Navy, it is a crucial part of our ethos, at least in our ships, submarines, naval air squadrons and commando units. I am less convinced that in the budget and staff constrained, and deadline-riven world of the HQ we value the generation of Social Capital anywhere near highly enough. So my resolution is to champion the value of  Social Capital in the HQ and to make the time to develop it.

Anyhoo, here’s my erstwhile departmental philosophy. See what you think:


HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, Weapon Engineering Department Philosophy

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

We are all hugely privileged to serve in HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.  This ship, along with HMS PRINCE OF WALES, will be at the heart of our Nation’s reach and influence for decades to come.  We have the opportunity and the responsibility to set the conditions for her success from the outset, and we must do so in a manner worthy the Sovereign after whom the Ship is named.

Readiness and flexibility: We work for a Service whose purpose is not only to shape world events on behalf of HM Government, but also to respond in times of crisis.  Even locally, the unexpected can happen at any time and without warning.  These moments can be defining for the individuals, ships and even countries involved.  When the moment arrives (and it will) we must be ready.  We can only hope to achieve this if we make excellence our habit in all that we do: engineering standards, maintenance, administration, training, military bearing and our overall conduct.  By being as ready as we can possibly be, we can be confident to tackle whatever the world will throw at us.  We can thus meet events on the front foot with the flexibility to seize and retain the initiative, not worrying about playing catch-up on things that we ought to have done.

Teamwork: We will succeed together or not at all.  This is a team sport.  Effective teamwork relies on clear, honest and timely communication in all directions and we must all work hard to achieve this.  It also means that we don’t pass on problems; we must each take responsibility, trusting that the team will support us.  We will look out for each other, and when our support is needed we must offer it willingly.  Our instinct must not be to walk past and leave it to someone else – the standard we walk by is the standard we accept and we will, rightly, be judged accordingly. As our Nation’s Flagship we must set the highest standards.

Our Terms of Reference should be the bare minimum we seek to deliver.  We must add value wherever we are able across the Department, the Ship and the Service.  This doesn’t mean that we should do others’ jobs for them, and all must pull their weight, but it means creating a culture that allows the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.  Everyone must feel part of this team.  As well as being entertaining, humour and ‘banter’ can have a powerful cohesive effect if grounded in trust and mutual respect, but it must be inclusive.  If there is any sense that an individual is being picked on, excluded, victimised, bullied or discriminated against it is corrosive and harmful to the team and the individual.  We will not tolerate this in our Department; we will treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Safety and Risk: Shipbuilding, seafaring, aviation and fighting are hazardous businesses. We must be assiduous therefore about safety.  Our enemies will try to do us harm, we must ensure that we do not do it to ourselves.  Safe systems of work exist and are to be adhered to.  Where there is a compelling need to take risk against safety this must be approved by the Command and, where appropriate, documented.  Do not take unnecessary risks with your own, or others’ safety, and look after each other.  We will have a just safety culture, reporting all incidents and near misses.

Getting HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH ready for, and conducting, operations will not be easy.  Frankly, if it were straightforward the Nation would not need us to do it!  It will be professionally and, at times, personally challenging but it will also be hugely rewarding. It should be a great deal of fun too and we must all do our best to make it so.  It’s going to be quite a ride – let’s enjoy it!

Finally, as a guiding principle: always do the right thing, not the easy thing.  If in doubt, ask.

When will HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH start doing her job?……She already is!

She slipped in quietly on Wednesday morning. No one made too much of a fuss so you may have missed it but, just in case you were away on holiday, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH made her first entry into Portsmouth this week. This historic moment was marked by a visit from the Prime Minister and a whole flurry of media coverage. One of Fighting Sailor’s jobs onboard (no one has only one job in the Royal Navy) is being Head of the ship’s Media Team; this was a busy week!  Whilst chatting to one of the media crew embarked for the event he asked me “I bet you’ll be really excited when this ship actually starts doing its job?”.  Whilst well intentioned he, like many people, has missed the point.

HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and her sister ship, HMS PRINCE OF WALES (due to be officially named next month), usher in a new era of global influence for the United Kingdom. It is an important statement about who we are as a nation: outward looking, global facing and engaged. We believe in the rule of law and the benefits of open secure trade. As an island nation, we are reliant on the sea for our prosperity and so a strong Royal Navy is essential. This may be the Government’s position but that’s not why I write it here – it is my honestly held view and, fundamentally, it’s why I do what I do.

The job of the aircraft carriers, then, is to project this influence onto the world stage, to reassure our allies and to deter those who would threaten our interests. It is the nation’s conventional strategic deterrent. Whilst early in her life, still owned by the shipbuilder (and thus flying a defaced blue ensign) and yet to achieve many of her key capability requirements; HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH is already and undoubtedly causing other countries to pay attention. The Russians have been very disparaging. Fine. It was the fact that they felt the need to comment at all that tells you all that you need to know.

To be fully effective, of course, it needs to be credible in its warfighting role and the achievement of Full Operating Capability for the UK’s Carrier Strike Group in 2023 will deliver exactly this, but the Carrier Strike Group will have teeth long before then. However, the ability to drop bombs on the bad guys from the sea or, more technically, to use maritime strike as a means to enact Government policy is one of the ways in which she achieves her purpose, this is not an end in and of itself. These ways (i.e. what the QE Class carriers will do) or the means (what the QE Class carriers are, e.g. 4 acres of sovereign territory, etc…) are often confused (as in the mind of my colleague from the press) with what they are for.  There are reams of text in MOD about what the UK’s nascent Carrier Strike capability is for. Here, for what it’s worth, is the Fighting Sailor version:

  • They are to extend the reach of our Armed Forces to better enable them to protect and promote the United Kingdom’s interests and values around the world increasing our security and prosperity. The ships are operated by the Royal Navy on behalf of Defence. The British Army and, especially, Royal Air Force both have absolutely essential parts to play in delivering Carrier Strike – this is a team sport!
  • They are to show that we are a nation that can look after ourselves and our friends. They are to reassure our allies and partners, and to deter those who would set themselves against us. This makes conflict less likely.
  • They are a visible and tangible political commitment to the United Kingdom’s role as a force for global stability and the rules based international order as befits a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council.
  • They are for expressing the United Kingdom’s national confidence, pride and ambition; something that has for centuries been vested in the Royal Navy as an ambassador of Great Britain in peace and war.
  • Ultimately, in times of crisis or national emergency, the British people will look to the Armed Forces as they have so often in the past to be ready and able to respond. The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will provide the platforms with the reach and flexibility from which to do just that.

To achieve these ends the Queen Elizabeth Class ships and their task groups will perform a wide variety of tasks: Carrier Strike, Humanitarian Relief, Non-Combatant Evacuation, Maritime Security, Diplomacy, Promotion of Trade and sometimes, just by being in the right place at the right time, they will deliver a clear statement of intent.  This is what HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH did on Wednesday.

So, the answer to the question posed: “I bet you’ll be really excited when this ship actually starts doing its job?”………..  She already is doing her job, and yes I am proud and excited to be part of it…. but there is much, much more to come.



Main picture credit: Adrian Whyntie

Women in the Armed Forces – the Right to Fight


Yesterday I tweeted about how proud I was to serve with the many brilliant women that we have in HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH’s Ship’s Company.  With International Women’s Day coming up this week I felt that I wanted to take a few moments to explain why I thought that this was an important thing to say publicly. Firstly, I’m not going to get into the silly debate of whether there should be an International Women’s Day – if you feel intimidated by the fact that there is one then you really need to address your own insecurities.  And, yes, there is an International Men’s Day (this year on 19 November since you ask).

There is lots of oft quoted research that there is a strong correlation between gender diversity on company Boards and company performance.  I have never yet seen convincing empirical evidence however that it is the gender diversity that causes this improved performance, rather than the diversity being the result of an organisation that genuinely recognises, recruits, develops and promotes talent irrespective of the reproductive organs that such talent happens to possess.  But my experience in the Royal Navy, and HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH in particular, has brought me to the conclusion that there is, in fact, a causal effect.  Now, one must be careful of generalising personal experience since the plural of anecdote is not data, but personal testimony can be powerful nonetheless.  We have some genuinely outstanding women serving in our ship, at just about every rank, and I am convinced that their influence makes us more effective.  My experience, as part of the ship’s Command Group, is that the team dynamics are improved, wider perspectives are considered and better decisions are made as a result.  As International Women’s Day approaches we should shout about this very loudly indeed.

But you don’t have to look far to see that this view is not universally shared amongst the wider population.  You only have to look at some of the online abuse that Capt Clare Coward received after the Storm in a Coffee Cup a couple of years ago to see that much of it wasn’t ‘banter’ but downright nasty sexist abuse.  That example isn’t unique and, shamefully, it seems like some ex-Servicemen are the worst culprits – the “it wasn’t like that in my day” brigade.  Much of this is based on pure ignorance and prejudice but it’s not just the dinosaurs. A colleague of mine confided that in social situations (in the real world, not military functions) she’s reluctant to tell people that she’s in the Armed Forces as it, quite often, elicits an unfavourable reaction from men and women alike.  By comparison, my problem is that I can’t shut up about being in the Navy – you might have noticed!  This underlying societal prejudice needs to be addressed if we are to make the most of the talent available to us.  And let’s be clear what we’re talking about here: the purpose of the Armed Forces is to achieve Government policy outcomes through the use or threat (implied or explicit) of violence.  It’s about fighting.  So, whilst it is morally and legally right to treat people equally irrespective of gender, it is also in the interests of being combat effective (of maximising your chances of winning the fight) to have the best people in your team that you can possibly have.  It is a matter of life and death.  Literally.

And yet women are underrepresented, especially in the higher ranks of the Armed Forces.  Part of the problem is that the Military has a bottom-fed manpower system and to get promoted one needs to hit certain career milestones to have the credibility and merit for promotion.  There are very good reasons for this, although there are some interesting counter-arguments too but that is how the system is and it is unlikely to change dramatically anytime soon.  And Service life, particularly in the Royal Navy, is demanding: lots of separation and unsociable hours, often with short notice programme changes.  Family life is one reason that people leave the Service before serving a full career.  Women, proportionately far more than men, step off this conveyor belt for family reasons.  You can argue about whether this tendency is innate biology (Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene makes the case for the maternal instinct, in general, being stronger than the paternal one) or the product of indoctrinated gender roles, constructs and biases in a patriarchal society.  It’s probably both.  We need to promote equality of opportunity and freedom of choice. If the policies and attitudes (always more work to do!) around parental leave and family life are equitable (including for those without a family or children – just because you don’t have kids, it’s not fair to get stiffed for all the Christmas Duties) then we must respect the choices made.  But, we can go a long way towards encouraging more women to stay for longer by increasing the support and mentoring of Servicewomen, recognising their contribution and challenging prejudice, especially unconscious bias, when we encounter it.  This includes, by the way, the families of Servicewomen who may face prejudice of their own, especially around society’s assumptions about family mobility and relocation on posting.  How many male military spouses get invited to the “wives’” coffee morning?

Societally, I think there are some own goals here too.  I have a concern that the well-intentioned, and otherwise entirely laudable, campaigns to end violence against women, for example, have the side effect of delegitimising women’s participation in combat.  Now, please don’t for a moment think that I’m in any way condoning domestic violence or the targeting of non-combatants in any form, nor am I denying that the majority of such violence is perpetrated against women.  But, surely, encouraging me to make a pledge to “never to commit, condone, or remain silent about men’s violence against women in all its forms” has the unintended side-effect of perpetuating the perception that somehow men need to do women’s fighting for them?  In the context of women serving in our Armed Forces (or those of the enemy) their ‘right to fight’ should be championed.  I wouldn’t target an enemy combatant because she was a woman, but nor would I avoid doing so because of her gender. To make this pledge (and mean it) and still champion gender equality in our Armed Forces would make me a hypocrite. I know that’s not what it’s supposed to mean, and the global issues that this campaign and similar ones seek to address are real and deserving of action, but that’s what it says.  I’m only using it as an example, but in perpetuating the unconscious biases that give rise to gender inequality the language used is a challenge.

How often do we still hear the term “women and children” used when it comes to reporting tragic events?  Through the lens of gender equality in our Armed Forces surely we ought to challenge the idea that women, like children, need special protection and should be offered first seats in the lifeboat when danger threatens? It may seem petty but it’s not; it is this unconscious bias that underpins claims that women are unsuited to the full range of roles in the Armed Forces and undermines the great value that the women in our Armed Forces bring.  They deserve better.  Sure, in general, there are physical differences between men and women which is why many sports have separate categories for women (although more than really should – why do women have a separate darts competition for example?).  But we shouldn’t exclude capable people because of a generality, that’s silly.  It’s right that all branches of the Armed Forces should be open to anyone who’s capable and willing.

So, as someone who wishes to support, promote and celebrate the work of the women in our Armed Forces please don’t ask me to pledge that women should not be engaged in violence – I want to champion and celebrate their right to fight!

Could we all calm down and be civil to each other please? 

Wanting Britain to leave the EU is a perfectly rational point of view; it doesn’t make you racist, xenophobic, fascist or, for that matter, socialist.  True, many people with these tendencies seem to fall into the Brexit camp, but there are unpleasant and ideological characters on both sides.  Personally, on balance, I think remaining in the EU would have been a better option but I know plenty of intelligent, sensible and good people who took the alternative view.  It’s ok to disagree, that’s what democracy is all about. 

It’s also ok that senior Judges rule on matters of law, and that such rulings are open to appeal.  Anything else is mob rule, and that is not ok. 

Quite rightly, the Government still intends to implement the will of the British people as expressed through the Referendum, even though the outcome was not my preference.  Our elected representatives (subject to appeal) will have a say, and they are accountable to their constituents. 
Could we all, please, get on with this in a civilised manner, avoiding hysteria and the personal abuse of those that disagree with us.  When the dust settles (and in the meantime), we all need to pull together and work to make the best society that we can for ourselves and future generations.  Anything else is self-harm, and that is distinctly unhelpful for all concerned.  Thank you.

Storm in a Coffee Cup


I think that it’s fair to say that Captain Clare Coward has not had the best of weeks. She is the Adjutant of 4 Battalion, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). Earlier in the week she sent an email to the subalterns in her Unit bemoaning the standard of presentation of morning coffee which, apparently, in that Unit is the sole responsibility of the most junior officer present on the day (at the moment 2nd Lt Webber normally has the honour apparently). Her email gives lengthy direction as to how the process is supposed to work, the quality of service expected and, critically, the nature of the biscuits which are preferred. It is, according to this missive, a duty whose importance is such that it is used by the Commanding Officer (CO) to divine the officer’s broader leadership qualities. The email went viral and attracted much ridicule. It was widely circulated within the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and, inevitably, found its way onto the internet. It was reported in today’s Times newspaper and the Mail Online is currently carrying the story.

Now, the email was unwise. It had an air of pomposity about it and it is always a bad idea to try and chastise subordinates in anything other than a face to face conversation. Such a conversation should, of course, almost always take place in private. But, and it’s a big but, there was clearly also an element of exasperation about the email. The Adjutant, whose role is to run the day-to-day business of the Unit for the CO, almost certainly had better things to do with her time. These are busy, high pressure jobs. I don’t know if the Commanding Officer was so affronted by having to wait a few minutes for the second pot of coffee to brew that she invited the Adjutant to “get a grip” (if so it sounds like she needs to take a moment of sober reflection about her own priorities), or whether Capt Coward was embarrassed that standards were not as they should be. In either case she felt that it was an issue to be addressed and she went to town on it. I am not for a moment advocating that high standards should not be maintained in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, as Aristotle said “we are what we repeatedly do, excellence therefore is not an act but a habit,” but there is an element here of picking your battles.

I think that Capt Coward would agree she made an error of judgement in writing and sending that email. For the rest of us, it is quite amusing. It has had a good airing on ARRSE (the Army’s unofficial online forum), Facebook and the hashtag #JeSuisWebber (in mock solidarity with the hapless biscuit monitor) is now a thing on Twitter. We all make mistakes and occasionally we end up as the butt of the joke as a result. Speaking from personal experience such lessons in humility can be very valuable, even if they don’t feel much fun at the time. But when a lesson in humility turns into an exercise in humiliation it can be damaging to the individual. I hope that Clare’s Chain of Command are putting an arm around her shoulder and supporting her to weather the passing storm. It will blow over soon enough once we’ve all (rightly) had a good chuckle but, please, let’s make sure that we don’t shame a decent officer into prematurely ending her military career over a storm in a coffee cup. Worse things happen at sea.


Red Tape in the Morning; Staff Officer’s Warning

“My department’s budget may be rising again but there will be no let-up in getting more value for money… Efficiency savings mean we will be able to spend more on cyber, more on unmanned aircraft, more on the latest technology, keeping ahead of our adversaries.”  – Michael Fallon MP, Secretary of State for Defence[1]

In this short essay I will examine what value for money means in the context of Defence and whether the inevitable SDSR[2] drive for greater ‘efficiency’ is, in fact, counter-productive in achieving the purpose of the Armed Forces.

As the Secretary of State alludes, the drive for ‘Value for Money’ in Defence  is usually shorthand for efficiency.  Efficiency is the ratio of output to input.  In other words, the drive for greater efficiency means attempting to do more with less or, at least, doing the same with less or more with the same.  There are a couple of issues here for defence strategists.  First, there is an inherent assumption that we understand what our outputs are. We go to great lengths to define these and set up business agreements between the different parts of Defence to ensure that everybody plays their agreed part in delivering them.  This implies, generally, that the purpose of the Armed Forces is to output Forces ready to be used for operations. In part this is true, especially if one applies the POSIWID principle[3], but surely the purpose of the military is to deliver successful Government policy outcomes.  Many of the outputs of Defence may not be relevant to achieving such outcomes in any given crisis.  Take the recent Operation GRITROCK, the UK Military’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in West Africa.  This wasn’t part of any Force Design or Force Testing scenario that I am aware of, and was delivered using Forces whose justification for existence (and thus attribution of input resources such as funding) was for other Military Tasks[4], yet a positive policy outcome was achieved for Her Majesty’s Government. The point here is that where Military Forces exist, they are rarely used for the specific purpose for which their requirements were set, but rather they have broader utility as instruments for Government policy; providing that they exist in the first place.  This is particularly true of units such as warships where the variety of missions that, say, a Type 23 frigate is able to undertake is far in excess of the predominantly anti-submarine mission for which she was originally designed.  So, the Value for Money is generated by buying as much capability as you can afford that is useable in the broadest range of scenarios.

Except; this logic forces you down a route of planning for the most likely scenario.  In risk management terms this is planning for the expected outcome.  This approach works if you’re an insurer and can aggregate your risks across many thousands of policy holders; or a health service whose usage rates by a population can, on average, be meaningfully planned for.  But the Military instrument is not like that.  We have been seduced into thinking that military campaigns have a steady drumbeat of 6 monthly roulements through theatres: whether Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland or one of the many routine operational deployments of the Royal Navy.  If we gear our entire establishment around this model we will achieve efficiency (of sorts) but we will fail strategically.  I say this because what really defines successful use of the military is its response to crisis, and the sort of crisis that becomes generationally defining.  The Falkands in 1982 is the obvious post-WW2 example but Sierra Leone, Iraq in 1991and the Kosovo intervention are other examples where it went well.  Operational failure in warfighting, especially when vital national interests are stake, changes the international balance of power and can redefine a nation’s place in the world order – the outcome is of strategic significance. It’s the stuff that brings down Governments.  To be ready to respond to crises which are, by their nature, largely unexpected takes systemic agility.  This agility comes from diligent contingency planning and meticulous preparation but necessitates a substantial degree of spare capacity in the system that can be drawn upon when the unexpected occurs.  Spare capacity is, self-evidently, not a feature of an efficient system. This is not, therefore about the management of risks to outputs but, rather, about the uncertainty of outcome.  The difference between risk and uncertainty?  In the former the probability distribution of possible outcomes is known, in the latter it is not.  It means you need a different set of management techniques.  That’s why stockpiles and reserves must be maintained, even though they may not have been drawn upon for years, because if they are needed they will be needed in a hurry; and once the button gets pushed it will be too late if they do not exist.  A push for efficiency at the expense of all else risks confusing activity with effect.  So in all that we do we should prepare for the most extreme outcome: high-end warfighting against a world-class adversary.  This should drive our requirements, training and manpower but importantly it should drive our intellectual preparation.  Concepts and doctrine must drive the other lines of development towards dealing with the evolving character of warfare and novel technologies must drive , and be driven by, the need to retain operational edge.  Of course, this will be constrained by the available resource but we need the moral courage to balance the activity of today with setting the conditions for successful effect tomorrow.  Within a system incentivised by annual appraisal this is especially challenging.  Ironically, and perhaps even paradoxically, the better we prepare to win wars, the less likely it is that we will have to fight them and thus our Forces can be used more readily for lower intensity operations.  If you want peace, prepare for war!

But however we define our capabilities and capacities, surely within the Force Development and Generation cycles there are efficiencies to be had? Why don’t we just cut the ‘red tape’ and stop spending money on bureaucrats and pen pushers?  This is an attractive battle-cry when it comes to seeking ways to save money on the generation of military capability and, indeed, in the spending of public money in the round.  The problem, however, is that every bureaucrat, no matter how inefficiently they work, is there to service a process which fulfills a function.  To get rid of the bureaucrat you need to establish that their function is no longer required (at least in the same quantity). But most of these processes are conducted to give a degree of management control and/or assurance over different aspects of the organisation: financial management and probity; contractual propriety; safety and environmental management; commodities management; human resource; etc, etc.  So what functions can we do without? Well, none of them actually.  We can reduce the amount of each that we conduct but, here’s the crunch, we must then be prepared to delegate and empower individuals to do make decisions and commit resources without the levels of assurance and managerial control that have been previously demanded.  In short, we must take risk against these processes and this means that mistakes will occur more frequently; and we must accept that this is not failure, but the system working as it was now designed.  And if we want individuals to hold such increased risk personally, then we may find that they need greater recognition and/or renumeration as part of the deal for doing so.  Process and bureaucracy are like a kelp forest for a scuba diver – it is no one strand that substantially impedes your passage, but the overall effect means a disproportionate effort is required to make progress.

So, beware the inevitable ‘efficiency drive’ after the coming SDSR.  Without a properly reformed system that removes management and assurance processes and delivers a commensurate increases in delegation, it will simply be code for reducing the number of people available to complete a similar amount of process.  The strands of kelp get packed closer together and progress becomes harder than it was before.  There is a real risk of not only achieving a less efficient system as a result, but also one less effective at delivering its real purpose, achieving desirable government policy outcomes using the military instrument. And during the SDSR process the arguments must be made to retain as much high-end warfighting capability as we can possibly afford in order to give the agility to deliver such outcomes, including novel ones like cyber and unmanned systems.  And finally, having sufficient warfighting capability makes it less likely that you will have to use it for this purpose.  If you think peacetime Armed Forces are expensive, try having a war!

[1] Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 4 Oct 15, https://www.politicshome.com/foreign-and-defence/articles/news/michael-fallons-speech-conservative-conference accessed 10 Oct 15.

[2] Strategic Defence and Security Review. The UK Government’s quinquennial review of Defence and Security Strategy.

[3] The Purpose of a System is What it Does. Brilliantly explained on the thinkpurpose website: http://thinkpurpose.com/2012/11/07/3-brilliant-systems-ideas-that-will-explode-in-your-face-2/, accessed 11 Oct 15.

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-defence/about accessed 11 Oct 15.