Digital Maneuver is the ability to quickly build or modify software applications or systems in order to gain a decisive advantage over a competitor. I’ve spent decades helping organizations increase their digital maneuverability and have recently created the Digital Maneuver newsletter in order to distribute some of these ideas and other curated content to people who are interested in achieving that in their teams. If you want to learn more ways to deliver software faster in your organization, sign up here.
As Marc Andreesson wrote back in 2011, Software is Eating the World. More and more of what we used to do in hardware, or used to do with people, is being done by software. This means that in order to be effective, any organization, whether private sector or public, tiny tech startup or large defense or intelligence agency, is going to have to become good at adapting to technological change by becoming good at building and deploying software.
What does good mean in this context? Sun Tzu said that speed is the essence of conflict, and I would extend that to say speed is the essence of competition. Therefore, I would define being good at software as being able to build and deploy software solutions more quickly than your competitor or adversary, given the same level of quality and reliability.
In addition, software has become more commoditized and easier to build in the last 20 years. More of what we do in software development now is related to some form of stitching together business process logic and making systems talk to each other rather than implementing some particularly technical thing from scratch. The rise of open source software over the last 20 years has aided this immensely. Organizations are able to reuse solutions to a variety of subproblems instead of starting from zero every time.
Because it is so much faster and easier to create software to solve problems, much software that is built now is almost throwaway software. It is easy to create, may solve a small problem or process, and may be disposed of when that process or problem no longer exists. This means that organizations that have heavy processes relating to software development are at a distinct disadvantage because the process originally designed to reduce waste on exquisite software projects has itself become the primary cost and time driver in those software projects. These processes have become precisely the thing they were designed to prevent. This is especially true in government and Department of Defense situations, as referenced by the Commandant’s Planning Guidance released by General Berger, which specifically calls out the Authority to Operate (ATO) process as a critical problem and risk.
Thankfully, many great thinkers have already pondered the problem of adaptability and agility in a broad sense, especially as it relates to military endeavors. Thinkers like John Boyd and William Lind have written and spoken at length about the concept of maneuver warfare and how being able to cycle through an Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop faster than your competitor is the decisive advantage. The same is true not only in the physical world, but in the virtual world as well. I will refer to this as Digital Maneuver.
Digital Maneuver is the ability to quickly build or modify software applications or systems in order to gain a decisive advantage over a competitor.
Framed in this way, Digital Maneuver is not broadly a new concept since every private-sector company understands the importance of being able to innovate and adapt more quickly than the competition. What is somewhat different is the consideration that techniques and tactics that typically apply to maneuver warfare in physical space are equally applicable when building software for users in cyberspace.
Mission Command is a good example of this. The same doctrine that encourages military organizations to provide clear intent of leadership and rely on actual doers for determining how to solve a given problem applies just as equally to software development projects. An equivalent amount of autonomy and empowerment is required for a software development team as is required for a combat team on the ground or in the air.
It may be argued that large organizations like the military know how to do this in the physical world, but in the world of software the tendency of these organizations is to centralize software development teams the same way the Greeks employed their phalanxes, and unsurprisingly, with the same results. The same organizations that espouse maneuver warfare seem to also be those most eager to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Digital Maneuver requires a highly evolved capacity to issue and execute mission-type orders, because the people who are issuing the orders (almost) never have the understanding to even begin to prescribe the details of execution. However, many senior leaders do not have a background in software and therefore do not weigh the perspectives of technical experts as high as they must in order to create change in the organization and succeed at delivering software more quickly.
Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3: Tactics, page 25 states very clearly that “The first requirement of a commander is to understand the situation.” This is excellent advice in any organizational endeavor. However, at the moment, there are essentially zero senior leaders in large public-sector organizations that understand how to do software development. The same is true in many large private-sector organizations (though to a lesser extent due to market forces). This, however, does not dissuade these leaders from making uninformed decisions about organizational and technology policy based on their intuition. Further, these senior leaders also do not have any competent staff to advise them appropriately. In other words, the people least qualified to make technology decisions are the ones tasked with doing it and they tend to underweight advice from outside competent experts. The onus is on us to demonstrate by small and consistent successes that further trust in and autonomy for technical experts is required. We must do a better job of leading up.
The Digital Maneuver newsletter will cover a variety of topics with original and curated content.
Things in scope include:
- What is Digital Span of Control?
- Freedom vs. Focus and adding constraints to digital maneuvers and tactics
- Offensive and defense operations in cyberspace, and cybersecurity more generally
- What does Digital Maneuver look like at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels?
- How are private and public-sector organizations improving digital maneuverability?
If you want to learn more about these and other topics, subscribe now.
As part of this effort, I have also started creating the Digital Maneuver playbook. This is open source (CC0 licensed) content on topics or plays that organizations can use to deliver software value to users faster.