The problem of modelism
Herman Kahn's thoughts on a common pitfall in strategy and planning
In 1957, Cold War strategist Herman Kahn wrote a paper with a co-author about the "ten common pitfalls" in military planning and strategy. 66 years later, it still holds up, particularly the lead-off sin he cited, "modelism," or "the use and abuse of models."
Some caveats are in order. This was a draft paper and as far as I can tell, was never formally published anywhere. Second, some of the examples and language are badly out of date (though the ideas that underpin the ideas are still fresh and useful). Third, Kahn leans towards the quant-side of strategy, which is to say those that prefer to make data-driven decisions (think late-50s “Moneyball”). But when you step back he’s concerned with improving strategy in “an uncertain world.” Aren’t we all?
So let’s talk “modelism.”
I’ve seen modelism at work in many different places. First and foremost is the academic tendency to mis-apply a particular tool or theory to explain some phenomenon in the real world. I remember hearing a Singaporean diplomat give a talk that not-so-subtly attributed the past few decades of peace in the Asia-Pacific to the peoples of the region being simply better at dialogue than the rest of the world—to which a geographer might point out that the vast blue distances between these maritime/island states and the lack of large-scale naval capabilities has something to do with it.