Positioning Moves versus Melee Moves

by Venkat on July 16, 2012

My general philosophy of decision-making de-emphasizes the planning/execution distinction. But I am not an agility purist. Nobody is. You can think of the Agility Purist archetype as a useful abstraction. This mythical kind of decision-maker believes that a mind and personality that is sufficiently prepared for a particular domain (say programming or war or biochemistry) needs no preparation for specific situations or contingencies. This magical being can jump into any active situation in that particular domain and immediately start acting effectively.

At the other extreme you have an equally mythical Planning Purist archetype who has thought through every possible contingency all the way through the end and can basically hit “Start” and reach a successful outcome without further thinking. In fiction, this is best represented by jewelry heist capers based on long, involved and improbably robust sequences of moves, as in Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. A few token things go wrong, but overall, these narratives play out like Rube Goldberg machines.

Clearly, reality lives somewhere in the middle. But planning vs. execution is not always a good pair of trade-off variables to create reality out of these two asymptotic myths. That distinction only works when there are a lot of known, hard temporal constraints  or formal logical constraints (socks before shoes) in play. These actually help simplify things and make planning/execution a useful model.

When there is none of this temporal structure (what David Allen calls “a hard landscape”) and everything is rather fluid and chaotic, I find it useful to think in terms of a different distinction: positioning moves vs. melee moves. I learned of this distinction from Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon HistoryHere’s a brief primer.

Positioning as Early Rich Moves

In sail warfare, there is a clear distinciton between moves designed to put you in an advantageous position with respect to relatively predictable environmental conditions (primarily the wind direction of course) and moves that are used once an engagement starts.  The latter culminate in a melee: ships next to each other, boarding actions and hand-to-hand combat. It is messy, chaotic and the very definition of the “Fog of War” phenomenon (in the case of sail warfare, cannon fire and the action of fire ships could create a literal blinding smokescreen over everything).

You can think of positioning moves as rich moves based on fertile variables that are likely to put you in command of many situations (“own the high ground” is the most famous one). They are high-potential-energy commitments in the space of probable paths. You can also think of them as leverage moves. A crucial feature is that positioning moves involve much less time pressure than melee moves and can be set up well before they are needed. So positioning moves are early, rich moves.

Melee moves on the other hand are, well, the other kind.

Mahan’s central insight was that you can sometimes position so effectively that you pre-empt conflict altogether (as in the case of the role of the Roman navy during the wars with Carthage) and that sea power has often been underestimated because it was often so effective at winning based on positioning alone.

Positioning without a Melee is Still Execution

In the planning/execution mental model, this would seem like a plan that never got executed (i.e. a contingency). But in the positioning/melee model, this would be a plan that worked perfectly because the positioning was so effective, the melee phase was not required. In the case of Rome, the war was forced onto land on terms disadvantageous to Carthage.

But unlike say, Sun Tzu (Art of War experts correct me if my reading here is wrong), Mahan did not hold up pure positioning victories as the ideal to strive for in all cases. He believed that the situation dictated the extent to which ends could be achieved by positioning alone. Even the most enlightened decision-maker could not always win a war without firing a shot.

I tend to agree with Mahan. Melee operations are necessary and unavoidable. Sometimes no positioning is possible at all and it is all melee.

Most good board games model both elements. My player friends tell me that Go has a longer phase of position development than chess typically.

The Optimal Time to Compute Things

It is possible to understand the positioning/melee distinction in information theoretic terms. Positioning moves can be driven by tractable computing with information you possess. Melee moves are precisely those where even if you have all the information, computing becomes intractable. It is better to let events determine a path and narrow the search tree of decisions. The real-time computation within this narrowed space becomes easier than pre-processing the larger space.

In a specific domain, it may even be possible to model the domain to determine the right dynamic mix of positioning and melee moves within an abstract meta-model. A lot of consulting is really about this kind of meta-modeling work.

Thinking in Terms of Positioning and Melee

It can be really hard to switch your thinking from planning-based to positioning based.

Planning is  based on straining to forecast and anticipate actual actions. The driving question is What needs to be done? 

Positioning is based on spotting advantages. The driving question is Where do things need to be before the chaos begins?

To plan, you start by identifying critical logical dependencies between necessary actions and time constraints. You plan by making commitments around those things.

To position, you start by identifying critical likely patterns of information flow after tempo epoch shifts. You position by identifying likely islands of calm in the forthcoming information churn. Think about surveying a flood plain that you know will start filling up with swirling waters and howling winds soon. Where are the relatively safe places? What can you do to prepare in those places?

Preparing for a melee though, is more like training for a sport by raising general fitness levels as high as you can.

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Ho-Sheng Hsiao July 16, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Ideally, you do both with a single move.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao July 16, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I’ve also found that vast part of execution is dealing with one’s own fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Venkat July 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Agreed, that’s always ideal. It’s like gravity assist slingshots in orbital mechanics, used in Voyager. You get pictures of Jupiter AND the right potential/kinetic energy mix to head to Saturn.

Harder to pull off in dissipative/entropic environments though.

FUD also includes an incomplete information angle though, not just a mental reaction. Even if deal with the reaction mindfully, the information deficit can still kill you 🙂

Jordan Peacock July 17, 2012 at 10:56 am

I agree on the board games analogy. This always holds for good, old-school tabletop RPGs. I GMed a game of Eclipse Phase this past weekend and it very rapidly switched from positioning to melee. It did not end well for them, alas.

Cameron Schaefer July 18, 2012 at 3:11 am

Sounds similar in many ways cheng and ch’i although melee sounds more like acting in the midst of chaos, whereas ch’i is more focused on creating the chaos or producing surprise. Chet Richards has a good discussion of it in ‘Certain to Win.’

Norm DeLisle July 18, 2012 at 5:25 am

Positioning as a framework allows you to use what you have learned about the habits of your opponent in your preparation.

Planning is so passive. The plan could sit forever on a shelf, and many do. Positioning DOES require action as part of preparation.

Chet Richards July 23, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Very nice!

Winning at the lowest possible cost was always Sun Tzu’s objective and so winning with no casualties would be the ideal. Griffith has a nice discussion of this point in the fifth chapter of his introduction.

However, as Chapter V of the Art of War points out, a strike that is quite violent (“like a hawk breaking its prey’s back”) may well be required, and the positioning activities set this up. Victorious armies may win first, but they still (generally) have to go to battle (Cleary trans., p. 91, as (slightly) modified). Cheng/ch’i (or zheng/qi in pinyin) is a way to describe these tactics. Sun Tzu notes that the timing — dare I say tempo? — is critical.

I have a few more comments in a business context on my blog, Fast Transients.

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