The Fog of War

BBC Radio 5 Live is doing full justice to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This Saturday morning (10th Sept) I caught an excellent interview by Phil Williams with Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell.

In it he used the phrase “Fog of War” to describe the immediate aftermath of the news of the attack on the Twin Towers reaching London. “No one had any idea what was going on”, he said. All the other EU leaders were calling Blair for news, and Bush was unreachable in Air Force One, flying back from Florida. If Blair and the Europeans didn’t know what had happened, they could hardly make any sensible call on what to say or do. 

For all decision makers the fog of war (at least as a metaphor) is a significant hazard. Not having enough information on which to base a decision is unsettling. Too much data can be confusing – as we have discussed before – but too little is dangerous. 

Powell came up with another graphic phrase to describe that happens in the middle of the fog: “everyone just sits down talking to each other”. 

I’m reminded of many meetings I have attended over the years. We are supposed to be meeting to decide what to do next. There are probably at least two options on the table. Inevitably some of the discussion will be running ahead to how we execute the decision, and what might happen after that. Will it work? How will the competition react? 

But suppose we don’t for certain what the situation is now. We may still be lacking key facts and data. If we don’t have enough information, or we don’t have the right information, what chance do we have of getting it right? 

Dangerous stuff fog.