Redundant Adaptable Systems

Natural systems use redundancy as a hedge against the uncertainty of the world. Our DNA is filled with redundant sequences, most organisms produce far more offspring than needed to effectively reproduce themselves, and ecosystems are filled with a diversity of species—each a redundant part that makes the ecosystem as a whole resilient to disturbance, unpredictability, and change.  There is fairly simple redundancy in nature—like the multiple copies of walking legs in centipedes—and there is what Geerat Vermeij calls “creative redundancy”—the transformation of simple redundant parts into specialized units.The biologist J.B.S. Haldane was purportedly once asked, “what do all your studies tell you about the nature of the Creator?”To which he replied, “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Beetles have dominated the Earth and diversified into thousands of different forms by creatively transforming the simple redundancy of their ancestors into wings and claws and armor and devices for shooting chemical weapons.  We tend to shudder at the word “redundancy”—we think it means the same as “wasteful” or “inefficient”.  We continually try to eliminate redundancy in our lives.  This comes from too narrowly viewing the wasteful aspects of redundancy. If redundancy is so useless, why is it so common in nature?When one of our kidneys fails, or a loved one desperately needs one of our healthy kidneys, we begin to respect nature’s redundancies.  Likewise, smart managers know how to use redundancy effectively.  A successful California CEO of a manufacturing firm, who often advises this consortium, is especially proud of an entire warehouse full of redundant spare parts he maintains.  Although there’s a cost to using all that space, when a helicopter of one of his clients is grounded somewhere or a critical piece of Emergency Room equipment fails, his customers know he is the only one in the industry who has the part, and they’ll pay dearly for it.  And the knowledge that he’s the one with the part you need when you need it, keeps customers coming back to him.  The Basketball Coach Phil Jackson, as Rafe writes about in Learning from the Octopus, used a more sophisticated form of creative redundancy to craft three straight championship teams in Chicago.  There he had to balance the talents of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the unpredictability and volatility of his star defensive player, Dennis Rodman.  Rodman was at first loathed and feared by the Chicago sports writers and fans, who thought his crazy antics—dying his hair chartreuse, showing up to events in a dress—would destroy team unity.  But Jackson recognized the value of creative redundancy and made Rodman’s eccentricities an asset to the team.  He bestowed upon Rodman the title of “Heyoka”—a Lakota Indian trickster spirit that was known to cross-dress, ride a horse backward, and generally mix things up in a way that made people see the world differently.  Rather than giving him another opportunity to rebel against authority, this was a title that gave Rodman something to embrace and recognize his role in the overall ecosystem of the team.  Jackson, who has coached the obvious choices for greatest basketball player ever—Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe—recently said that Rodman was the best player he ever coached.When considering the redundant assets in your world, it’s always worth asking, “who is my Heyoka?”


The most successful biological organisms have an organization that eschews centralized control in favor of allowing multiple agents to independently sense and quickly respond to environmental change.  Our immune system trusts millions of cells all over the body to look for, and neutralize, invading pathogens without any conference calls to our brain to plan and execute an appropriate response.  The octopus, which has a powerful central brain, nonetheless knows how to balance its advanced cognitive capabilities with the quick responsiveness afforded by having millions of color changing skin cells spread across its body.Pretend you are an octopus.  You are happily (yes, octopuses seem to have emotions) skipping over a coral reef looking for crabs to eat, when suddenly you spy a large mouth grouper swimming your way.  Your best bet at this point is to hide, but how do you do it? You have a wonderful brain, why not use it to tell your body what to do?  Okay, start shouting orders: “Arm 1, turn pink! Arm 2, turn greenish yellow! Arm 3, turn sorta red-fuschia-ish!”  You can see the problem right away.  Not only will your brain be too slow to tell a complex body how to act, but the coral reef is too complex for your central brain to even have a good sense of what it looks like in each little micro-environment at once. Fortunately the octopus has millions of skin cells that can each respond to the environment around them, changing shape and form to match the very local conditions in their immediate area.  Their collective actions give the octopus as a whole its camouflage. Research by Geerat Vermeij, who looks at broad patterns in the history of life, suggests that the most adaptable organisms use decentralized organization—where multiple semi-independent agents sense change and respond to it on behalf of a larger body, but not under the control of a central brain.  The vertebrate immune system is an excellent example, wherein many independent sensors scan the body for invading pathogens, identify and upregulate an appropriate response without deference to a central brain.In society, there are both negative and positive analogies to this type of system. For example, putting most of the U.S. security agencies into a single large centrally controlled bureaucracy (the Department of Homeland Security) after 9/11 led to ineffective responses to the next major security emergency, Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Where’s FEMA, KE Fishing”, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Finding an agency within a bureaucracy means finding the “org” chart, and the org chart of DHS looks like this:Can you find FEMA in that (hint: it’s the box with the dotted line around it)?  The org chart is a symbolic representation of the difficulty for ideas to find solutions or solutions to find ideas in a centralized organization.By contrast, Google Flu Trends uses the distributed sensing power of millions of Google users searching flu-related terms to accurately detect flu outbreaks.  Unlike the centralized US Center for Disease Control’s flu trends reports, which require surveys to be sent to doctors and hospitals and returned to CDC for analysis and report writing, Google Flu Trends are available (like the camouflage of an octopus) almost instantly, and up to two weeks earlier than the CDC data.But we also like to say, “Have an Open Mind, But Not So Open That Your Brain Falls Out”.  By this we mean, all that decentralization is great, but it will never work effectively without some central control.  In adaptable systems there are several key roles of a central controller, an organization, or a manager.   A central controller is useful for getting the resources that decentralized problem solvers need (all those skin cells in the octopus wouldn’t work at all without the metabolic energy provided for them by the octopus and its clever brain).  A central controller is also often useful for having a bigger vision (the octopus seeing the threat of the predatory fish) and that is essential for helping define the actual challenge.  For example, while the most effective research, mitigation, and adaptation strategies for climate change may be at the local and regional level, it is still necessary to have a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that can see the collective effect of our actions on the planet as a whole and across long time scales.

How adaptable systems work – Unplanned

Organisms in nature do make some predictions, but they tend to be over fairly regular events, like the turning of the tides or the shift from day to night.  Wasting energy in trying to predict high risk events that are highly uncertain would leave little resources for the more important task of solving day to day challenges. Did the animals that acted so strangely before the enormous Boxing Day tsunami in Asia predict it, or were they just really good at observing the early warning signs?  The answer lies in the rarity of a huge tsunami. Evolution has ruthlessly weeded out from organisms any desire to expend resources predicting the future state of an inherently unpredictable system, especially for such rare and unpredictable events as a tsunami.   In its place, adaptable organisms have astonishing observational skills. The signals of vibration, noise, smell and magnetism those animals experienced on the morning of the tsunami were so unlike their usual observations that they became very nervous, and domestic animals even tried to tell their human compatriots about their fears.  Too often in society, we try to substitute predictive models for intensive observation of the world.
Finally, although evolution is sometimes mistakenly referred to as, “survival of the fittest”, it is actually “survival of the just good enough.”  You don’t need to be the fittest or the biggest or the fastest or the prettiest to do well in nature.  You just have to relentlessly solve challenges in the environment long enough and well enough to get the chance to reproduce yourself.  Even the notion of identifying perfection in nature is absurd.  We are told in documentaries that the great white shark is nature’s “perfect predator,” but wouldn’t it be more perfect if it had laser beam eyes? As Andreas Wagner points out in his book, Paradoxical Life, a perfect parasite species at any given time would infect every single available host, but then there would be no more hosts for the parasite’s offspring to infect.    Unfortunately, we tend to waste untold resources in “optimization” exercises that have us endlessly chasing an elusive goal of perfection while losing sight of merely solving the problems at hand.

Research Support

We seek support for our research activities through federal grants, private foundations and individuals.  Individual and foundation support can be routed through the University of Arizona Foundation at a low overhead rate.  Our work also is supported in innumerable ways through our relationship with the University of Arizona, which provides administrative support, unparalleled library resources, and a wide range of professional colleagues and top graduate students all operating in a unique environment that places a high value on interdisciplinary and applied research.



Many individuals, organizations, and businesses are talking about the need to be adaptable, but few know what adaptability really means, let alone how to implement it in practice.  We understand the core attributes of adaptable systems and we know how to apply them to a wide range of applications, from business management, to improving communication, to mitigating risk. Our consortium’s knowledge base spans a wide range of inquiry into adaptable systems, including virology, predator-prey interactions, communication systems, network dynamics, cooperative symbiosis, and human evolutionary psychology.  Accordingly, our solutions are not cloned from a template, but developed organically from the right mix of adaptable solutions for your particular environment and challenges.

We can provide services ranging from inspiring keynote addresses at conferences or retreats, facilitated workshops from half to multiple days, and contracted consultation on any challenge where risk, uncertainty, and change are pushing you out of your comfort zone.


For speaking engagements and  consulting, contact Dr. Rafe Sagarin

United States Institute for Peace

Rafe provided a keynote speech for the Alliance for Peacebuilding‘s annual meeting.  An incredible group of dedicated and deeply experienced individuals working with governments and NGOs to build peace where there was, and often still is, conflict.  We talked about the power of symbiosis, and with the Boston bombings weighing heavily on everyone, on the importance of tribal identity and “breaking through” conflict.

Boston and Biology

The New England Aquarium hosted Rafe for a discussion of Learning from the Octopus.  It was an emotional event, coming just a week after the Boston Marathon bombings.  But the adaptability of a city like Boston is imparted in part by its strong tribal identity.  When we see tribes we identify with under attack, we tend to think it’s us that’s under attack.  So even as Bostonians reaffirmed their tribal identity (“We Ah Boston Strong,” read one sign at the first Bruins game after the bombings), runners across the country held charity events for Boston’s victims, and they even sang “Sweet Caroline” in Yankee stadium.

Biology in Schools

Each subsequent class period is led by a student who assigns reading materials (from the primary or secondary literature, new media sources, agency or NGO reports, or one of their own research papers in progress) to their fellow students via an online course “wiki” 2-3 days before the class. By the night before the class meeting, all other students are required to contribute to the wiki page by posting an article, video, or other contribution related to the main topic with one or two lines of annotation. Because the wiki records the user name and time of contribution, it is easy to ensure compliance with the class expectations.

The effect of an adaptive syllabus is twofold. First, students have ownership over the course.  Educational theorists and practitioners have demonstrated multiple benefits of student ownership in science education, including greater self-direction, self-motivation, improved learning outcomes, culturally relevant learning outcomes, and better matching to the cognitive process of learning itself.
Second, colleges and universities today, both public and private, are often diverse environments with students from a range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds. Courses developed with students in an adaptive fashion can harness their often-substantial experience in foreign travel, exposure to alternative political and economic regimes, and hands-on laboratory and field research. In a traditional course, the experiential knowledge of students is rarely effectively tapped in the classroom, and, at the extreme, can be viewed as intrusive on the discussion.

By activating multiple semi-independent problem solvers in the shaping of a class period, the information flow is much different than that in a traditional discussion course or seminar (Fig. 1).


In the traditional classroom (Fig. 1, left, the role of the instructor is well defined and the class period acts as a filter to homogenize the material that all students receive in the same fashion. The source materials are typically small in number, and from a low diversity of sources. For example, a traditionally structured class on “ecosystem-based management” typically involves a discussion of 2-3 papers per class from the primary literature or from governmental natural resource agency reports (Fig. 1, left). In the alternative classroom model discussed here (Fig. 1, right), a wide diversity and high number of source materials are utilized, and interconnection among students (not just between the instructor and the students) is high.  In this model, the class period is not a filter between the instructor and students, but a dynamic entity created by the students, their interpretations of the materials they and their classmates contributed to the wiki, and the experiences they bring to the class. Students are free to choose from a wide variety of source materials, including variations on previous posts to the wiki or previous classes. Having a wiki space where these contributions can be incorporated into the structure of the course and a discussion space where they can be modified gives the course the same type of recursive growth potential seen in complex adaptive systems.

Experienced teachers will see that there is a lot of overlap with these methods and the emerging interest in “Project-based” or “Problem-based” learning at the K-12 level.  In these methods, the required curriculum is stealthily hidden in projects assigned to students to complete individual or in groups.


Adaptable approaches to teaching developed by Rafe Sagarin at Duke University and at University of Arizona rely on the same decentralized adaptability that an octopus uses  to increase student participation in class and broaden the source materials for class to include primary literature, new media and the personal experiences of the students themselves.  This video gives an overview of our approach

Rafe Sagarin discusses his adaptable approach to leading and teaching classrooms.

Solving today’s societal challenges requires understanding and knowledge generation from many disciplines using both quantitative and qualitative approaches. To prepare to work with these problems, students must learn in an environment that is more than merely interdisciplinary, but adaptable to changing knowledge landscapes. Classrooms inspired by adaptable processes in nature can support greater autonomy of students over their learning outcomes and make their learning experience a recursive [link] and linked [link] process of growth rather than an isolated exercise.

Unfortunately, almost all undergraduate education is hobbled by a non-adaptable organizational system characterized by the prominent role of a central controller (the instructor). The instructor singlehandedly crafts and issues a pre-determined plan of study to the students, in the form of a course syllabus. Although in many classes students are encouraged, or coerced by participation-based grading, to “take part in discussion,” by design, the discussion is supposed to be limited to the topic designated by the syllabus, lest it “go off on a tangent.” The ultimate effect is a class that lacks responsiveness and adaptability to the dynamic knowledge environments within which today’s students are operating, both within and outside the classroom.

Our approach to creating an adaptable classroom is committed to vastly enhancing student ownership of the course, harnesses students’ experiential knowledge bases, and uses new but readily available “wiki” technology to facilitate a transition away from instructor- and syllabus-led education. One of the factors that is critical for this change also involves adding increased physical activity, or exercise, to our regiment. Running is critical to development of confidence, the body, and the mind. is a great website about running and different running shoe reviews, which also makes note of the important of physical activity towards development.

The development of the adaptive syllabus is initiated during the first class period by asking students a small number of basic questions, such as, “what do you want to learn about within the main course topic?” and, “what knowledge can you contribute to the course?” Responses are organized via a class discussion into central topics for each subsequent class period. The result of this task, which takes less than one class period, is a syllabus created almost completely by the students themselves.


Sometimes we think we have a better way than nature and we end up spending a lot of energy and resources promoting that way, when we’d actually be better off just letting nature do its job. An analogy is the human foot – it’s a wonderfully adaptable structure that in turn helps us adapt to our environment.  As Christopher McDougall writes in Born to Run [link], the human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 12 tendons, and 8 muscles all adapted to respond to changes in the environment as we experienced it running barefoot to track down prey for most of existence on Earth. Yet we’ve spent the last several decades devising ever more complicated and expensive devices (running and training shoes) to take our foot out of its environment, and some studies show this is likely causing more injuries than it prevents. Runners who are ditching their shoes and going back to the way we ran for 99.9% of our time on Earth are discovering that we were indeed “born to run”, injury free, well into old age.

In the same way, we pour millions of tons of concrete to create sea walls and levees, which offer only limited protection from storm surges and often create further coastal erosion by deflecting wave forces down coast.  They’re also ugly.  Unfortunately, they’re often put up in place of natural “living shorelines” (marshes and coastal wetlands) that do a better job of dissipating storm energy, or look at the mustache trimmer, or even as they also absorb greenhouse gases, create habitat and nurseries for fish and shellfish, and look much better than concrete walls.

When we ignore natural security systems, we also reduce natural systems’ abilities to help us adapt to change.  In the case of anthropogenic climate alteration, most experts agree that we will need to adapt to inevitable climate-related changes.  The University of Arizona just hosted the second international conference on climate change adaptation and people from all over the world presented aspirational and currently functioning projects that will help communities deal with some of the changes already and expected to occur.

Looking at natural adaptable systems provides a consistent way for approaching climate change adaptation.  We are bringing nature’s expertise to climate adaptation projects run out of the University of Arizona.   Our newest project has an unlikely partner—the U.S. Department of Defense.  With funding from SERDP [link to our project page], we will be working with four DoD facilities, representing the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, in the southwestern U.S. to help them identify where the risks and opportunities due to climate change lie, and how they might adapt better in the future.  Rafe writes about why the military is so interested in climate change adaptation in this op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic.

Regardless of the application, the Adaptable Solutions Consortium sees natural ecosystems as both a source of knowledge about adaptability and as functioning resilient systems that can enhance our adaptability to a range of risks.


Biological systems, societal security systems, and businesses share the same fundamental problem, which is that risk in the environment is inevitable and unpredictable.  In business, in counter-terrorism, and in homeland security, we have expended massive resources trying to predict and plan for the uncertain threats of the future, but  the next terrorist attack, the next stock market crash, and the next killer app inevitably take us by surprise, forcing us to react well after the damage has been done.

The biological world has a much better track record.  Biological organisms have not only survived, but thrived, in a world of extreme and unpredictable risks for over 3.5 billion years.  Not even IBM has that kind of longevity. They’ve also diversified into well over 10 million different species and covered the planet from the deepest to the highest to the wettest to the driest environments.  Not even Google has that global reach.  How they’ve pulled off this remarkable feat is quite simply that they are all adaptable.  Strictly speaking, adaptability is the process of changing structures, behaviors and interactions in response to changes in the environment.  In practice, adaptability means owning the middle ground between reacting to a past crisis (by which point it is too late to prevent it) and predicting the next one (which is never possible in a complex and dynamic world).  Moreover, adaptability is the necessary underlying condition that must be present before any system can become resilient.

Of course, adaptability has become a buzzword in the business world, just as it had in the security field after 9/11 and Katrina.  With each new market crash, regulatory change, and natural disaster wreaking havoc on supply chains, the cry comes up to become more adaptable.  The problem with these idealistic calls to arms is that few institutions–whether in the government or in the free market–really know what adaptability is or how to make it happen.

Moving beyond the flippant use of adaptability as a corporate buzzword into a place where it becomes a transformative strategy requires consultation from the experts—the millions of living species on Earth.  At the same time emerging sectors of our society, including innovative businesses, hardened military commanders shifting to the private sector, and young entrepreneurs are, knowingly or not, using biological adaptation to overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis.

1 Biology and Business

Orginally published in Harvard Business Review blog on March 5, 2013

Remember when Apple’s stock traded at $7 a share? I do, because that’s when I sold my shares. Tech experts’ sage predictions had convinced me that the Mac would never make a dent in the PC market. As it turned out, the Mac didn’t need to make a dent, because Apple mutated its cute computer DNA into cute music players and phones that fit massive unfilled niches. Yet even the genius architect of this turnaround made faulty predictions sometimes. Remember the invention Steve Jobs said was going to be “bigger than the PC”? You may have seen a mall cop riding one recently.

Even the best of us are horrible at predicting the future. That’s too bad, because our world is full of risk that we’d love to avoid and opportunity that we’d love to seize.


Fortunately, there’s a rich source of lessons on how to thrive in an unpredictable world, and it has been cranking out success stories for 3.5 billion years. It’s called biology.


All of Earth’s successful organisms have thrived without analyzing past crises or trying to predict the next one. They haven’t held “planning exercises” or created “predictive frameworks.” Instead, they’ve adapted. Adaptability is the power to detect and respond to change in the world, no matter how surprising or inconvenient it may be.


While there’s much chatter in the management world about the need to be adaptable, only a few creative companies and innovative managers have probed the natural world for its adaptability secrets. But when they have, they’ve been remarkably successful. A study of nature offers straightforward guidance through four key practices of adaptable systems.


Decentralization. The most successful biological organisms are structured or organized in such a way as to eschew centralized control in favor of allowing multiple agents to independently sense and quickly respond to change. An octopus, despite its surprisingly intelligent brain, doesn’t order each arm to change a certain color when it needs to hide quickly. Rather, individual skin cells across its body sense and respond to change and give the octopus a collective camouflage.

CEOs and shareholders needn’t fear this kind of organization. The independent sensors of adaptable organisms are not anarchists. Ultimate YouTube Guide has the best microphone for youtube commentary be sure to check them out. They rely on the resources and follow the overall direction that the body gives them. But decentralized organization yields faster, cheaper, and more effective solutions to complex problems — think Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica, DARPA Grand Challenges versus Department of Defense single-source contracts, or Google Flu Trends (which uses the power of billions of users independently searching for flu-related terms on Google to identify flu outbreaks) versus the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu reports (which can give you the same results, two weeks later).


Redundancy. Adaptable systems make multiple copies of everything and modify the copies to hedge against uncertainty. Redundancy is not efficient, but it does help you solve a wide range of unexpected problems. A CEO I know who uses biological principles to run a manufacturing firm that has never been unprofitable or laid off an employee in 30 years keeps a massive warehouse full of multiple copies of every part he’s ever made. This cache of inventory and wasted real estate violates all the norms of just-in-time manufacturing, but when a 20-year-old helicopter is grounded and needs to fly now, he is the only one who has the part. Customers that have been bailed out by him go back to him. He has turned commodity parts into a proprietary service, just as nature turns the massive redundancy of just four DNA bases into a dazzling array of unique ways to deal with risk and uncertainty.


adaptation and resilience

Here I discuss the difference between adaptation and resilience in this answer to an audience question at the January 24, 2012 Signature Lecture for the Centre for International Governance Innovationin Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


In short, adaptability seems to capture the idea better of changing to deal with new conditions, whereas resilience can imply the ability to return to a previous state. Most resilience scholars are careful to note the difference between the brittleness that comes from returning to a previous state no matter what the cost (e.g., homeowners using flood insurance to rebuild on a flood plain) and the kind of elastic resilience that makes one a better performer in the future, but I still like the easier applicability and lesser degree of confusion with adaptation.

Balancing Big Data and Deep Data

In Learning from the Octopus I mostly look at the benefits of massive, decentralized data gathering—by organisms in nature, or by networked organizations of people. To varying extents biological organisms including humans, process massive amounts of observational data and use these data to construct subconscious patterns and scenarios.  How our immediate reality coincides with or deviates widely from these patterns leads us to make changes (in how we move, where a quarterback throws a ball, how a dog determines whether to trust someone, etc.) or adapt to a novel situation.    But I also note that organisms in nature, for 3.5 billion years, haven’t been wasting their time trying to use data to predict into the far and uncertain future.


This far and uncertain future is where holistic pictures of complex situations emerge.  For example, our understanding of recent climate change and our limited predictions of what is to come, could not be developed solely on massive climatological databases.  There is, for instance, also the question of how the biosphere has been reacting to these climate changes (itself now a large and growing database of “fingerprints” of climate impact), and how human behaviors and economic decisions in the past and future will shape the climate system.  Right now, we have a lot of these data, but not nearly enough based on the data alone, to make a firm decision about what we should do.  But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing.


As I argue in the book, nature has multiple options when confronted with challenges that its own internal database can’t handle.  For example, an organism can create a symbiotic partnership with another organism.  Such symbioses will be essential in solving climate and other complex challenges, even where we lack all the data we’d want.  One small example: a project colleagues of mine at the University of Arizona have started with Navajo Indians to install solar membrane distillation desalinization pumps where once windmills pumped water so saline that not even cows would drink it, and tribe members had to drive an average of 40 miles to bring back bottled water to their homes.  The project benefits the Navajo nation whether or not particular data driven scenarios about climate change in northeastern Arizona are accurate, and it benefits the University that wants to demonstrate its prowess in renewable energy technologies R&D.  In other words, symbiosis helps partnering organisms (or organizations) solve complex problems without needing all the data.


This balance of mining data in unprecedented and amazing ways versus the need to understand a situation holistically in order to solve complex challenges is the driving the transformation of scientific inquiry, as I describe in my other recent book, Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World (2012, Island Press).  In that book, I show how life scientists are now combining massive, automated and technological data gathering and analysis capabilities with the old fashioned practice, long dismissed in scientific circles, of simple natural history—what paleontologist Geerat Vermeij calls “observation with the brain in gear” in his contribution to the book.  This combination of broad knowledge and deep knowledge, of technical and human capabilities, gives us our best chance at understanding an unpredictable and rapidly changing world.

Adaptable Mission Command Requires a Balance

I would further press that a mission command force must use these observational skills to better understand the true intent (as opposed to the stated intent, which may not be the same thing) of its adversaries.  A fish doesn’t try to turn a shark into a vegetarian—it accepts the risk of predation in the world—but it does use its observational experience to try to escape from the shark, trick the shark, or even form a partnership with a shark.  One of the most effective measures for reducing the IED threat in Iraq wasn’t better armor or jamming technologies, but forming symbiotic partnerships with local populations that generated greater numbers of tips about IEDs and IED makers. Understanding the intent of these populations—rather than assuming they could only be classified as an “enemy”–was essential in forming these partnerships.

Trust is fortunately deeply seeded in biology.  Essentially all organisms since the beginning of biological time needed systems for understanding what was like themselves and what was not like themselves.  All organisms have this “self/non-self” recognition system that lets them know who to trust.  For humans, this is codified in culture or “tribal identity”.  We often consider tribal identity as dangerous and conflict-generating, citing examples of militant religious identities and domestic terrorists.  We also consider tribal identity as enshrining stasis and adherence to outdated norms.  These are both biased readings of human evolutionary history, where tribal identity has overwhelmingly been a source of advancement and adaptability. The trust enshrined in tribal identity is what kept a naked and largely defenseless ape secure for most of our time on Earth and it continues to have a critical value today. The trust we place in members of our tribe give us the freedom to innovate and to take the risks to try new ways of living.


A key aspect of mission command is balance—as General Dempsey states, “understanding…must flow from both bottom-up and top-down”.  Biological organisms are neither completely decentralized nor centralized in their approach to problem solving.  Decentralized observers and responders are essential to get a localized and high tempo reading of the challenge at hand.  Centralized command, in parallel, carries key functions which include having a globalized and contextual sense of the local challenge, providing resources to support those charged with meeting the challenge, and providing a means for reproducing successful solutions.  Through natural selection, organisms like the octopus have arrived organically at this balance. Bringing this balance to present day human command structures—which are overwhelmingly centralized–will likely require leadership to relinquish some control.  General Dempsey provided some specific illustrations on how this might be accomplished in the training environment—by incorporating uncertainty, imperfect information, and the need to delegate.

These same characteristics can be generated in all operations of a future force through the process of challenge-based problem solving.  Challenges, as opposed to “orders”, put the onus of finding the best solution on decentralized agents.  A challenge that is well-tuned to the operational environment (understanding) and well-articulated (intent) will almost always yield faster, cheaper, and more effective results than a centralized mandate.  Of course, relinquishing controlled planning to the unknown and unpredictable outcomes of a challenge requires commanders to utilize the last attribute of mission command—trust.  Trust in the subordinate challenge solvers and trust in the system of challenge-based problem solving.  The former can only be generated through relationship-building. As for the latter, there are now dozens of case studies from many complex environments of successful challenge-based problem solving—from DARPA’s “Grand Challenges” to biological challenges to identify novel protein conformations (issued in the form of a multi-player online video game)—which reveal empirically the power of trusting decentralized problem solvers enough to get the job done.

As General Dempsey stated, the basic principles of mission command are not new concepts.  Indeed, they are billions of years old.  The challenge is to implement them throughout the Joint Force.  Lessons from the massive case study database of nature can inform this implementation at every level.

3.5 Billion Years of Support and Implementation of “Mission Command”

General Martin Dempsey’s “Mission Command” White Paper of 3 April 2012, meant to inform the development of Joint Force 2020, lays out the framework for an adaptable force that can operate in the dynamic security environment of the future.  As a biologist, I am struck by how many of the concepts have parallels in biological evolution, especially in the process of adaptation, which has allowed all organisms to live, and thrive, on a risk filled planet for 3.5 billion years.

What I offer here are time-tested biological concepts that lend support to the mission command concept.  The concepts I present are not one-off oddities of nature, but general attributes of biological systems that are remarkably consistent across the millions of species on Earth.  Further, these attributes suggest practical pathways by which to implement the goals of mission command.

Adaptation is the Key

At the end of the day, mission command is fundamentally about forming a system that is adaptable.  Because we are human, we have the unique luxury of creating a system that adopts the best attributes of natural adaptive systems without taking on the high burden of failure (lots of death and non-viable mutations) that goes along with biological evolution. In designing such a system it pays to recognize that biology has worked without extensive planning, predictions of the far future, or efforts to make responses perfect or optimal. Extensive advanced planning or prediction is simply a waste of energy in a complex and unpredictable world, and perfection is not only impossible to define, but completely unnecessary when the need is simply to reproduce success. Instead, adaptable biological systems do four key things that allow them to operate in a risk-filled and unpredictable world: 1) they have decentralized systems for sensing change quickly; 2) they have redundant systems to respond to the sensed change; 3) they have the ability to extend their responsiveness beyond their inherent capabilities by engaging in symbiotic partnerships; and 4) they have a method (replication, cell division, reproduction, etc.) to iterate successful solutions.

The Biological Roots of Mission Command

These properties of adaptable systems emerge from specific practices that align well with the three “key attributes” of mission command identified by General Dempsey: understanding, intent, and trust.

Understanding is fostered in biology through intensive and decentralized observation.  The most successful organisms have decentralized ways to sense and respond to change in the world.  An octopus, for example, can change color instantly because millions of skin cells spread across its body change in response to what they each sense in their little part of the octopus’ theatre of operations. Our adaptive immune system is an exemplar of this kind of observation as it utilizes millions of decentralized cells to identify, and respond to, invading pathogens with virtually no communication “up the chain of command” to our central brain.  The immune system would be both worthless and unworkable without the larger body it belongs to and brain it works for (which provide those cells a home and nutrients), but it completes the mission of keeping our body safe largely in a decentralized manner.

Intent is the hallmark of biological systems and one of the reasons they are an excellent model for human systems.  As the early 20th century marine biologist Ed Ricketts wrote, “A study of animal communities has this advantage. They are what they are, for anyone to see who can and will look clearly. They cannot complicate the picture with worded idealisms, saying one thing and being another.”  Humans can hide and confuse intent under the guise of these “worded idealisms,” so it is essential to identify the core need underlying the intent.  In doing so, it is important to understand that intent isn’t an independent force in biology—it is intimately linked to how the organism operates in relation to other organisms and its environment.  Consider that from a fish’s point of view, a shark’s intent is much different when it is swimming around an aquarium (where it is well fed and it only needs to swim to oxygenate itself) vs. when it is swimming in the wild (where it is simultaneously looking for oxygen and a meal). Building the skills of observational understanding among ranks below and above the command is essential in ensuring that intent is well received.