What is strategy's dark matter?

Recently in Washington, I had a chance to visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Most displays give off an early-90s vibe, which few notice. The show’s real stars aren’t the displays. They’re the air and spacecraft suspended above.

But one display carried my attention. It was about Vera Rubin, a woman I’d never heard of—but who matters a lot. She’s a discoverer who discovered nothing at all.

In the 1960s, Rubin expected to learn that stars farther from the galaxy’s center would move slower than those closer to the center. Instead, she found that the outermost stars were orbiting faster than expected. She postulated that these stars were being influenced by some undetected mass.

That undetected mass came to be known as “dark matter.” “Most of the matter in the Universe is not radiating at any wavelength that we can observe,” Rubin pointed out, “and that is a rather daunting idea. We became astronomers thinking we were studying the Universe, and now we learn that we are just studying the 5 or 10 percent that is luminous.”

When our scientists study the universe, it’s possible they’re only parsing 5 percent. The rest of it—maybe 95 percent—is dark matter.

So what is strategy’s dark matter? For the strategist: What’s the unseen, inadequately-understood variable for which we’ve left largely unaccounted?

I’d put all my chips on the minds of others.

Think about it. How difficult it is to understand the mind of another person? Not just across a culture. Not just across a language. Not just across the battlefield. It’s hard with adversaries. It’s hard with allies.

Most miscalculation begins with this chasm between the minds. Two weeks ago, the French, having beaten the Japanese in a fierce defense contract competition, thought they had an agreement to sell submarines to the Australians’. The Australians’ changed their minds, backed out of that deal in favor of one with the UK and US. The French are furious, in part because they missed this nuclear-sized change of mind on the Australian side of the deal.

It’s easy to empathize with the French. Another person’s mind is an impenetrable vault. We can’t crack it without permission. How little do we know about even those closest to us?

As William Bruce Cameron pointed out (in a quotation often mistaken for Albert Einstein), “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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I heard Rubin, in one of the Smithsonian display videos, prefer the term “unknown” over “dark” matter (though everyone must agree, dark matter is great branding!).

I’m not so sure that works for strategy. “Unknown” conveys an awareness of our gap in understanding. I think most of the time we’re not.

To re-mix former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous press conference statement, there are conscious knowns, conscious unknowns, and unconscious unknowns. I think strategy’s dark matter—the minds of others—falls into the latter two categories. We really don’t know what’s going on in another person’s head and most of the time we’re not even aware of what we don’t know.

In that way, strategists and scientists share the same dinghy—limited to our own crude sight, floating along on an uncharted sea.