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Asymmetric Warfare: Agents of Change vs Agents of the Status Quo

Friday, September 9, 2016

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I shared a short reflection on the problem of asymmetric scrutiny (See: The Problem of Asymmetric Scrutiny) – the cultural norm of applying a higher approval threshold to new things than we apply to the status quo. If this observation is indeed correct – and many have told me recently that it is – than perhaps there are lessons to be gleaned from the idea of asymmetric warfare.

Now – to be clear – I’m not necessarily of the view that there is a culture war between innovation and the status quo (though perhaps there is) and I usually don’t like using combative metaphors; that said, I think it’s worth dusting off my undergraduate PoliSci text book and exploring the idea a little further.

What is asymmetric warfare?

Asymmetric warfare is simply a conflict between actors whose relative power, strategy or tactics differ significantly. It’s typically it’s a conflict between a traditional force and resistance movement. This power asymmetry creates situations where each party attempts to exploit each other’s characteristic weaknesses. This makes it incredibly difficult to anticipate who will win the conflict because there is no way to effectively measure the resources available to either side.

But why do weaker actors fight stronger ones? 

Academics have a number of hypotheses as to why this happens, including:
  • Weaker actors may have secret weapons
  • Weaker actors may have powerful allies
  • Weaker actors must consider other weak rivals when responding to threats from powerful actors
  • Stronger actors are unable to make threats credible
  • Stronger actors make extreme demands
And how do weaker actors win?

And a number of theories as to how weak actors can defeat strong actors even when they lack traditional sources of power:
  • Weaker actors can more reliably implement a coherent strategy
  • Weaker actors are willing to suffer or bear higher costs
  • Weaker actors are supported by external actors
  • Stronger actors are unwilling to escalate the severity of their response when their demands are not met
  • Changing attitudes of the rivals over time

How asymmetric warfare apply to innovation? 

Asymmetric warfare (as explained above) is not a dissimilar characterization of what “innovators” face when they run up against the “no-machine” (protectors of the status quo).

Power asymmetry between agents of change and agents of the status quo creates leads both parties to to exploit each other’s weaknesses to gain the advantage. For example, change agents (the resistence force) try to outmanoeuvre the system by moving faster, ignoring established rules, and cutting hierarchy when it suits them; whereas, agents of the status (the traditional force) counter by clogging the system to slow it down, deploying checks and balances that favour them and invoking hierarchy wherever it is to their advantage. The net result here is similar: it's hard to pick winners in the innovation ecosystem.

Why do agents of change fight?

They could fight because:
  • Agents of change may be better at anticipating important shifts in the terrain ("secret weapons")
  • Agents of change may have strong influence networks ("powerful allies")
  • Agents of change must consider other competing interests moving through the system ("weak rivals") 
  • Agents of the status quo may be unable to make the consequences meaningful to agents of change ("credible threats")
  • Agents of the status quo may require proof beyond that which is reasonable to agents of change ("extreme demands")

How do agents of change win?

Change is likely when:
  • Agents of change can implement and articulate a coherent strategy
  • Agents of change are willing to suffer or bear higher costs (e.g. personal reputation or career progression)
  • Agents of change are supported by external actors (e.g. politicians, think tanks, scientists, etc.)
  • Agents of the status quo are unwilling to escalate the severity of their response when their demands are not met 
  • Changing attitudes of the rivals over time

How does all this help us understand the problem of asymmetric scrutiny?

Within this context I think we better can understand that is likely more purposeful than accidental. it is a tool deployed tool by agents of the status quo against agents of change. The former control where scrutiny is applied and to what degree and so they apply it asymmetrically against those who would undermine their authority (caveat: this is likely more frequently and more simply referred to under the rubric of 'accountability').

The lesson then is that agents of change must not only be champions for the thing they want to see changed or implemented but must also be engaging in active and frequent discussions about accountability and scrutiny and how a better balance ought to be struck between that which is new and that which is not.