On the Perils of Placebo Strategy

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

A wartime military hospital in a combat zone is without morphine—a tragedy-in-waiting. Patients flow in, and with no other acceptable choice, the hospital’s leader, a colonel, tells his doctors to give placebo painkillers to incoming patients. “Here’s the formula,” he says. “If we believe it, they believe it. Otherwise they’re only taking sugar pills.”

The strange thing was, it seemed to work. The head doctor-colonel made his rounds and was surprised to find that the sugar pills placated the patients. He asked one soldier, “You’re really beginning to feel it, aren’t you son?”

“Yeah. The arm stopped throbbing,” the soldier replied.

“It’s going to feel even better,” the colonel reassured him. “Now get some sleep.”

Of course, the story above is as fake as those sugar pills. It was plucked from the sixth season finale (March 27, 1978) of the most-watched television show of all-time: M*A*S*H. That show’s story centered on the fictitious 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. The “placebo strategy” was dreamed up by Col. Sherman Potter (portrayed by actor Harry Morgan), based on something the character had seen in his youth. This fictitious plotline seems to have leapt off the screen and into regular military practice, which may be the real tragedy-in-waiting.

Placebo is Latin for “I will please,” and first turned up in dictionaries, medical and otherwise, in the late eighteenth century. Essentially, placebos are medical treatments or substances without any therapeutic value, like sugar pills or saline shots. Typically used in medical trials to determine a baseline against which to evaluate the efficacy of a separate substance, there has recently been some suggestion that placebos can have a positive effect just through sheer social ritual alone (e.g., visiting the doctor for check-ups, etc.).

The concept of a placebo may also hold utility in understanding other human endeavors well beyond its natural medical context—in strategy making, for instance.

Strategy is the purposeful orientation toward success in a complex, competitive conflict, often employed in a military environment. The making of strategy is a team sport, usually involving a large group of professionals, agreeing on some diagnosis, and then convincing a senior military professional to commit to some strategy to seek success against a given adversary or environment. It’s not just a professional process—it’s a social process—and so has patterns of behavior that can be described and dissected for study.

The risk, though, is that the process goes on, but becomes detached from the purpose of producing a strategy—such cases might be labeled “placebo strategy.” How widespread placebo strategy making is or has become is a subject open for debate. What follows is a sociological hunch gleaned through personal observation. At the very least, criticisms of the poverty of strategy at the national level appear sufficient to presume the phenomenon may be somewhat common—a dangerous fact.

Placebo strategy, fundamentally, is the organizational tendency to go through the rituals of strategy making without substance. This is not necessarily about the effectiveness of individual strategies, but about the social process of making strategy. The practice described is satisficing strategy; just like sugar and saline, it may placate an organization for a while, until, of course, the external environment or hostile adversary comes to strike. This is what makes the practice so hazardous in a military or competitive context, because strategic environments and enemies are much more difficult to control or predict compared to medical ones.

Here’s what it often looks like in practice: A new commander of some military unit arrives and takes stock of the organization. He or she visits various parts of the command and learns as much as possible about the unit, and after some three, four, or five months, calls for an “offsite.” The offsite is a meeting place, often nearby the actual headquarters, where the commander gathers those individuals deemed most important or valuable to the command. At the offsite, consensus is sought on all or most major challenges facing the organization, true back-and-forth disagreement is perhaps tolerated temporarily but not encouraged (and in particularly bad circumstances, is discouraged, openly or tacitly), and the collective leadership validates a broad command strategy meant to be the unit’s guide for success over the rest of the commander’s term (the next 2–3 years).

Placebo strategy may be a close cousin or counterpart to classical groupthink. It is certainly distinct and different from bad strategy—it is bad strategy’s antecedent or precursor. Placebo strategy is an unstressed or untested strategy that’s highly unlikely to survive contact with a competent foe. It is strategy before the fall, an uncalibrated and unusable compass that may check a box on the packing list but simply won’t suffice when direction is required (under pain of death).

To help differentiate: What are some characteristics of a truly proper strategy? A solid strategy should be balanced between pre-cooked design and nimble adaptation. It should be short enough to be memorable by many, and specific enough to be meaningful to all. They’re artful—engaging and energizing to those they intend to guide. They’re scientific, including a vision or an aim, as well as a “theory of victory” that can be simplified to an “if X, then Y” statement.

Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters is essentially about the dividing line between the two. Bad strategy, he explains, can amount to “vague aspirations,” and it happens when “hard choices are avoided, and/or when leaders are unwilling or unable to define and explain the nature of the challenge.” Other traits of bad strategy include too much “fluff,” which he calls a “form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments.” With bad strategy, there’s no true attempt to “address critical issues or when they are impracticable.”

Essentially, Rumelt sums up, this is “the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy.”

Rumelt’s problem is that he identified a consequence but not the cause. By examining the completed product and not the underlying process, he didn’t dig deeply enough to explain why there’s so much useless strategy being done, in uniform and well beyond. He describes bad strategy, but doesn’t go far enough to understand its root cause.

So what’s caused placebo strategy’s proliferation? The underlying trigger is likely wrapped up with the changing nature of work over the past century. In David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he points out that there was a tripling of “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment. With such an expansion of white-collar work, it seems reasonable to suggest there would be a corresponding increase in strategy-making activity (much of it far less than great). Within such circles, the title term “strategist” has grown exponentially, and in the US Army, for example, there’s now even an entire career field with hundreds of military officers dedicated to the practice.

Strategy making is now so routine that doing it on assuming military command has become a ritual. Every new commander feels compelled to have a strategy. Often, there’s seemingly a hard-wired need to differentiate themselves from previous commanders, and a strategy gives an opening to do so. Strategy, then, becomes a statement of difference.

Rituals are sometimes characterized as social events that signify crossing a threshold, which explains placebo strategy in two ways. One: it’s meant to demonstrate change from one commander to the next, a threshold in person-form. Two: an offsite wherein individuals are sequestered and separate themselves from the normal workplace is intended to confer a greater meaningfulness or even higher plane of understanding—where you go for the “answer.” This is threshold crossing in physical location.

Strategy has also become required, particularly in military organizations. If a unit’s higher headquarters has one, then so must commands down the chain. It’s become expected; just as one would expect a general or an admiral to have a bag-handling aide and a government-issued phone, so must one also have a formally stated strategy.

And so as strategy in organizations has become a minimum requirement, the making of such strategy has evolved to satisfy these expectations.

This is the fundamental problem with strategy making in today’s military organizations. Too often, it’s become rote. Everyone just agrees to swallow the sugar pill, whether it’s likely to work or not. Gratification without substance.

The good news is that placebo strategy has some telltale signs.

First, one should ask what caused the strategy to be written. Was it some artificially imposed timeline? (Ninety days after a new officer takes command is common in US Army units.) Because the newer a commander is, the less that person knows about the organization, and sometimes, frankly, it takes much longer than ninety days to grapple with some immense, sprawling organizations, both geographically and conceptually. Codified strategy should only come as circumstance allows, not on a pre-set timeline.

Moreover, no matter what the organization, continuity will always outweigh change. Organizations evolve over time to meet the challenges they confront—and these challenges don’t change on the same planning calendar that govern changes of command. Therefore, most of the decisions made by a recently departed commander should live on, at least for some time.

Second, was a new command strategy written by widespread committee? Instigated or generated by a staff section? Of course, with staff aplenty and only one commander, this cannot be avoided or nothing would ever get done. But the commander must be intimately involved in the process of strategy making. The ultimate decision maker for the unit should be the principal pen wielder or idea creator. If the objective of strategy making is to fine-tune the organization’s compass for stormy seas, then the commander should be the one to grapple with these issues, because this process forces the decision maker to confront challenges ahead of time. In short, strategy making at its best should fine-tune the organization’s compass before its deployment.

Of course, there will be cases where placebo strategy succeeds—with the unfortunate effect that it becomes perpetuated. Strategy is a competitive endeavor and sometimes an inappropriate placebo strategy can overcome an adversary’s magnificently poor strategy. That can happen, but is also more likely in spite of, and not due to, placebo strategy.

Which dredges up one final truth about strategy: it’s always relative. And so there’s ultimately no objective measure. The best we can do is identify some patterns of failure that tend to be unsuccessful and try our best to avoid them.

In this case, actively working to avoid the development of a placebo strategy can steer us toward a few practices that will be worthwhile and maybe even war-winning. First, accept that strategy is an iterative process. The environment and adversary is always changing—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot—and so the strategist must adapt to meet the needs of the moment. That means practicing constant pre-mortems and SWOT analysis—assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. As Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s dictum might be amended: strategy is nothing, the strategist is everything.

Perhaps most important, one should also continuously stress-test a strategy. Use scenarios, as well as historical challenges: What were the major problems the organization faced over the past five, twenty-five, and fifty years? How would the current strategy provide meaningful guidance to navigate those past ferocious floods?

If we can do that, we’re much better equipped to rapidly identify weak strategies and root out vulnerable ones.

Because we may not be as lucky as M*A*S*H’s Col. Potter. Some fake morphine may reduce pain in a few individuals on a television show through the commercial break, but certainly not forever, just as an exposed placebo strategy likely won’t last in the real world.

Placebos can’t stop real bullets, but the right strategy just might.

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