Historical lessons for new consultants

Peter MerrittFunLeave a Comment

This is the first in what may be an occasional series which seeks to make historical lessons more widely available to 21stC business. All of these are taken from the work of Dr R.V. Jones, a home-grown genius from WW2. I am indebted to some American colleagues involved with what is known as ‘red team’ training, the awkward squad developing groups whose members attempt to represent opposition forces or simply play ‘devils advocate’, challenging comfortable group-think assumptions (or wishful thinking). I think that is a useful trait for any of us...

The Problem: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend...”

When flying over occupied Europe in 1941, many British bomber pilots left their I.F.F. (identification, friend or foe) transponders on, believing that the signals jammed the German radar-guided spotlights. British scientific intelligence leader R. V. Jones suspected otherwise, and he reasoned that leaving the I.F.F. on (via the so-called J-switch) was a no-win strategy for the British:

...it was possible to show that switching on one’s own identification device was the most dangerous thing that one could do. Either it had an effect on the German radar control, or it had not: if the latter, you were relying on a useless countermeasure and might therefore fail to develop another countermeasure which would be effective; if the former, radiation was coming out of the bomber that positively identified it as British, and it would be a very simple step for the Germans to develop a special equipment to challenge the I.F.F. set properly and obtain both its identification and its exact position.
- R. V. Jones

Jones’ logic was sufficient to secure a “special meeting” at which the pilots’ view of the J-switch held sway. Though disappointed, Jones was able to convince Bomber Command to study the issue further. The resulting report concluded that the I.F.F. had no effect on the German radar but pilots should leave it on because, in Jones’ words, its continued use “would encourage them to press home attacks over defended areas when they might otherwise be inclined to turn tail if caught by searchlights.” This clearly rankled Jones, who considered it to be “a thoroughly immoral argument which sooner or later must lead to trouble.”

The trouble emerged by the end of 1943. The Germans did exactly what Jones suggested they might: build receivers to query the British I.F.F. signals and determine the bombers’ locations. The British were losing bombers at an increasing rate, and Jones believed that leaving the J-switch on contributed greatly to the losses. Applying additional analysis and argumentation, Jones was finally able to persuade Bomber Command to end the practice. Unfortunately, crews relied on it, and it was difficult to squelch entirely. Since British bombers flew in compact formations, even one crew choosing to still use the J-switch “jammer” could endanger an entire mission.

What does this have to do with us?

First, experienced developers (business as well as geeks) know how to look for and exploit the ‘signals’ clients or rivals emit, whether they generate these signals through specific practices or systems or whether they simply emerge from everyday business activities. As the whole of Most Secret War reveals, Jones was exceptional at this – and his opponents weren’t bad at it either. On this count, Jones’ following encounter serves as a warning to all developers: “After the war, one of the German scientists working in the raid tracking organisation told me that he thought that we could have had no idea to the extent to which the Germans were making use of the information that we were thus prodigally providing.”

So, lessons to be learned are:

This principle isn’t limited to security; it applies to all operations a business would like to mask from its opponents and competitors. Consider, for example, how much information a business releases through job announcements and social media. Good developers are aware of these channels and investigate them thoroughly, subject to the scope of the assessment.

Second, good developers tell their customers (and each other) when ‘talismans’, old tools and practices the customer believes are working really aren’t. As Jones points out, such tools and practices are doubly dangerous: they discourage the customer from developing effective tools and practices, and, in some cases, opponents and competitors can turn the otherwise useless tools and practices against the client.

Finally, good developers know when to be persistent in the interests of their customers. Even when it became increasingly obvious that the Germans were using the RAF’s own I.F.F. to locate British bombers, Jones still had to argue his case persuasively and tenaciously. He was confident he was right and was willing to spend some of his social capital on ensuring British flight crews did not risk their lives unnecessarily. We should be willing to do the same.

Further Reading