Alastair Luft’s Blog

03/19/2017

The Importance of Flexibility: Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

The summer of 2006 in Kandahar, Afghanistan was surreal.

In the early spring of that year, coalition forces regularly drove Panjwayi district, 30 km southwest of Kandahar city. By August, the region was nearly impassable, with several hundred to a thousand Taliban fighters reported to be in the district and intelligence analysts stressing that the estimated numbers, ‘weren’t Afghan numbers, they’re real numbers.’ What’s more, the Taliban were estimated to have had stockpiles of weapons, quick reaction forces, and hardened defensive positions more akin to force-on-force conflict than what was supposed to be a rag-tag insurgency.

Operation MEDUSA was supposed to change all that and in the end, it did, although not as initially planned.

At the time, Operation MEDUSA was to have been the biggest operation conducted in Afghanistan since 2002. The initial plan called for Panjwayi district to be encircled by coalition forces from the north, east, and south. Once that was done, Taliban fighters would be bombarded over a three day period with offensive air strikes, artillery barrages, and direct fire from troops on the ground. There was no worry about distinguishing the Taliban from locals; as a combination of Taliban suppression and coalition pre-combat messaging, all the locals were given days to evacuate the area. In addition to the bombardment, coalition forces would conduct a series of feints, all intended to force the Taliban to react and move. Once the Taliban did something, they’d be located and once they were located, coalition forces had the technological advantage to keep tabs on them in order to destroy them in detail and at leisure.

It was a great plan and it lasted less than 24 hours.

The cordon went in place around Panjwayi the night of 1 September 2006, exactly as envisioned. Midway through 2 September, the 1 Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group was ordered to cross the Arghandhab river from the south of Panjwayi, a full 48 hours earlier than anticipated.

With little time to prepare, Charles Company of 1 RCR crossed the Arghandhab at around 0600. The Taliban were ready. By noon, the attack was over, the Canadians withdrawn from Panjwayi with a number of casualties and many individual acts of heroism . The plan quickly adapted, giving Charles Company some time to regroup, but on the morning of 4 September, an A-10 Thunderbolt forced yet another change when it mistakenly strafed Charles Company with its 30mm chain gun, killing one and injuring over thirty. In just over 24 hours, Charles company had become combat ineffective and Operation MEDUSA was no closer to securing Panjwayi.

This is where the units and personnel showed their organizational and individual flexibility. Having attempted a break-in from the south, the 1 RCR BG shifted focus to the north, where Bravo Company was able to exploit. Patrols broke through on 5 September and by 14 September, major combat operations were done, although the Taliban proved extremely resilient in hampering reconstruction efforts over the next month. Still, a combination of good training, discipline, and agility of mind had enabled the collective team to improvise, adapt, and overcome an unexpected setback. This is the principle of war known as flexibility, and it can be equally applied to an artist’s inner creative battles.

Flexibility

Flexibility is defined as the ability to be modified, or a willingness to change or to compromise. Although ‘compromise’ is considered a dirty word by some in the military (everybody loses something), the ability to change is highly valued, as recognized in the military truism that, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’ And while flexibility is a means of dealing with setbacks, it’s also a means of taking advantage of opportunities.

A flexible person or organization is characterized by their responsiveness, as in how quickly they can adapt to a new situation. To some extent, this is a measure of decision-action cycles, and so communications are important as this helps develop shared awareness and understanding. Discipline is also critical, as it imposes a measure of order onto chaos. Then again, there’s a fine line between too much discipline and too little, as too much rigidity can create a brittleness that kills innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness, all characteristics that are part of being flexible.

Flexibility is important because it’s indicative of resilience. Yes, rigid things are supposed to be stronger, but the problem with rigid things is when they’re stressed in a manner for which they’re not designed, like the twisting pressure on the upper arm bone in arm wrestling. Surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for the humerus to break in a spiral fracture – it’s not necessarily designed for that type of force. Something that’s flexible, on the other hand, can move in multiple directions and is thus less likely to break no matter what stressors it undergoes. As such, flexibility is the essence of the saying, ‘improvise, adapt, and overcome.’

So if flexibility is so important, how can it be developed? There are procedural and mental aspects that can be trained. From an organizational perspective, processes can be implemented that help speed up the time needed to analyze and understand new situations. Technology can also help, as quicker and more reliable communications can help develop shared understanding, an important aspect within a team. From a mental standpoint, training and rehearsals can develop familiarity with unpredictable situations. Over time, the mental aspect could go deeper, to include an avoidance of rigid solutions and enculturation of trying new things in the face of adversity.

For artist’s fighting their own inner creative battles, there will always be a need for flexibility. Especially for writers, where projects could take a year or longer, there are lots of opportunities for things to go off the rails, at many points. Either in writing itself, or in the business side of writing such as publishing, things will rarely go according to plan. Flexibility gives the writer, or any other type of artist, the ability to shift focus and seize opportunities while still meeting their original aim.

First and foremost, consider application of this principle at the highest level, the act of writing itself. At this level, the main concern is that the activity is happening, and that quality practice is being done. Flexibility can provide the strength to adapt. Can’t write at the normal time because of: a) a house fire b) baby kept you up all night c) take your pick? Then work later. Or work earlier. Or work somewhere else. The answer sounds glib, it’s absolutely not. J.K. Rowling evidently wrote the first Harry Potter in cafes, illustrating the maxim, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’

Moving down and in, to the tactical level or the level of the individual project, there are any number of ways to be flexible; it all depends on the goals. Want to be published? Many authors want to go the traditional route, but self-publishing might work as well, or perhaps the middle ground of crowd-funded publishing would work. There are so many options that it’s almost hard not to be flexible, but this represents the threat of rigid thinking. Rigid thinking says there’s only one way to skin the cat, but flexibility is about working smarter, not necessarily harder. Flexibility is about picketing the obstacles that get thrown in your way and bypassing them. It’s about improvising, adapting, and overcoming.

Fortunately, most of the obstacles a writer or other artist will face will come nowhere close to those encountered on the field of battle. But metaphorically speaking, the scale is similar; some unexpected developments will be minor annoyances and others will seem like the end of the world, strategic shock-inducing events. Fighter or writer, no matter which, this is the time to dig deep, take stock, and carry-on.

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