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How do Decision Makers Navigate through Chaos?

The legendary advance of the 20th Maine Regiment[i]

"Do It - That's how" – Colonel (later Major General) Joshua Chamberlain

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is best known for the bayonet charge during the Civil War battle of Little Roundtop. Chamberlain ordered this maneuver after several calls for reinforcements and more ammunition. The Confederates were preparing to make a charge up Little Roundtop, and Chamberlain ordered his men to charge first with bayonets since they had no more ammunition.

The timing and intensity of the charge rattled the Confederates - they ran and retreated. Many say this was the principle decisive action that led to Union victory at Gettysburg, and eventually the end of the Civil War.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine are the embodiment of navigating through the chaos and what ‘sense and respond’ looks like in a military environment. There are many heroes in this story and many lessons in leadership and the time-critical performance of duties. I will leave it up to the reader to further study Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. This blog post is a nice start ( We are going to explore what “Sense and Respond” looks like in a business context.

How does ‘Sense and Respond’ translate to a business environment?

From a recent McKinsey and Company survey, COVID-19 and supply chain disruptions were the top issues on senior executives’ minds[i]. From the Delta variant to events in Afghanistan, uncertainty and the second and third-order effects from these recent events is hard to decipher.

Figure 1: The COVID-19 effect on economic conditions | McKinsey. Retrieved August 16, 2021, from

Forecasting is predicting future events based on past historical events. Usually, we have an ‘event’ that has multiple occurrences over time. An event can be a supply transaction or a medical ICD code. Time series analysis is a common technique for analyzing events and producing a forecast.

‘Sense and Respond’ can be considered a slight paradigm shift or a higher level of analytical maturity than your traditional forecast. We can use various frameworks to explain this – Boyd’s OODA loop[ii], Carnegie Mellon's CMMI maturity model[iii], and causality - Judea Pearl's “The Book of Why.”[iv] For ‘Sense and Respond’ we aren’t blindly chasing the most recent event but rather applying a hybrid statistical-mental model to the most relevant information we have and acting upon that in both a tactical and strategic manner. We make the best decision (act) based on model features and what we know (context). This is a very process-centric approach that requires extensive domain knowledge with continuous feedback for quick, decisive actions.

In the ideal organization and environment, we want to do both – forecast as an input into our ‘Sense and Respond’ architecture. We want to be able to predict what will happen at the present moment. However, this is not always the case with military operations, supply chains, or pandemics.

Walmart and Amazon are both good examples of an organization that has been able to both forecast and ‘Sense and Respond.’ They’ve been able to accomplish this by developing their own customized enterprise information systems that allow them to reduce information delay and shape the environment that both consumers and producers interact in.

A great case study for what happens when companies can’t make the transition from indecision or ‘Wait and See’ to ‘Sense and Respond’ is Lora Cecere’s 2016 Caterpillar Case Study[v]. Below figure from her 2016 LinkedIn post:

Figure 2. The Time It Took Fortune 500 Companies to Sense the Market Downturn and Make Changes in the Recession of 2007-2009[vi]

For global or more niche supply chains, any disruption in manufacturing has second and third-order effects on quality forecasting. In the case of COVID-19 forecasting models, disparate data, nonstandard practices, and shifting and/or vastly different environments were the enemy to a quality forecast.

If we can’t get a quality forecast, we need to shift resources and our strategy to ‘Sense and Respond.’ To make this shift in strategy, we need the collection and fusion of information based on known models of what ‘event’ is happening. We also need scenario planning for what can or might happen next. If this sounds familiar to Boyd’s OODA loop – well…it is.

Figure 3. Boyd’s OODA Loop[vii]

For supply chains, the pandemic has already forced this shift, but challenges are and will still occur. Again, the Delta variant and recent events in Afghanistan will likely impact some supply chains[viii].[ix] However, mature supply chains have the IT infrastructure in place to ‘Sense and Respond.’ The challenges for mature supply chains are:

  1. Identifying the potential scenarios (i.e., Figure 1 COVID19 vs GDP scenarios), and

  2. Knowing the trigger points or key indicators for which scenario you will be or currently operating in.

For other industries – the data collection methods and IT architectures may not already be in place. The US healthcare system quickly comes to mind; however, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Google, and Apple are making big investments and advances in this space.

Technology, Process, and People - You can’t just “Do It - That’s How” without these

In conclusion, to use another military strategist, the Chinese General Sun Tzu, leaders must ‘Shape the Battlefield.’ Leaders must envision worse-case scenarios and then develop plans, processes, and courses of action to push these scenarios to their advantage and strategic goals.

To effectively do this they must further invest in technologies and IT architectures that allow them to know when a certain scenario is coming to fruition. Today’s environment and a deluge of information also means advanced analytics and machine learning to identify what information is actionable and what information is just noise.

They must also effectively train and develop processes for when a given scenario does in fact come to fruition. Processes can include Scenario Planning to Value Stream Mapping depending on the domain. United States Navy aviation and the United States Navy nuclear program are great examples of high-reliability organizations (HROs) that do this today.[x]

Lastly, and most importantly, they need the right mix of people that can make, and are empowered to make, the time-critical decisions necessary to ensure success. Little Roundtop was not just Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. As you dig into the battle, several names come up that if they didn’t succeed in their role or make the correct decision – the battle would have been lost.

Decision-makers need ‘Sense and Respond’ IT architectures that include analytics capabilities, streamlined, value-centric processes, and highly trained, passionate personnel. Given these tools – they can just “Do It” as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain prescribes.


Jerome is a Senior Operations Research Analyst here at CANA. You can contact Jerome at


(i) Downtowner. (2017, May 24). The Purcell Chronicles: Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Saves the Union at Little Round Top. The Purcell Chronicles.

(ii) The COVID-19 effect on economic conditions | McKinsey. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2021, from

(iii) Grant, Tim, and Bas Kooter. 2005. “Comparing OODA and Other Models as Operational View C2Architecture,” June 13, 2005.

(iv) White, Sarah K. 2021. “What Is CMMI? A Model for Optimizing Development Processes.” CIO. June 1, 2021.

(v) “The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect: Pearl, Judea, Mackenzie, Dana: 9780465097609: Amazon.Com: Books.” n.d. Accessed August 12, 2021.

(vi) Caterpillar’s CEO Doug Oberhelman made a big bet and lost. Here’s what he can teach us. | LinkedIn. (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2021, from

(vii) Cerere, L. (2016, October 17). (1) Caterpillar’s CEO Doug Oberhelman made a big bet and lost. Here’s what he can teach us. | LinkedIn.

(viii) Grant, Tim, and Bas Kooter. 2005. “Comparing OODA and Other Models as Operational View C2Architecture,” June 13, 2005.

(ix) As US exits Afghanistan, China eyes $1 trillion in minerals. (2021, August 24). Retrieved August 31, 2021, from

(x) Network, marinemonks N. (2021, August 16). How Afghanistan’s Taliban Takeover Will Affect The Shipping Industry—Marinemonks. Retrieved August 31, 2021, from

(xi) What high-reliability organizations get right | McKinsey. (2019 May 7). Retrieved September 1, 2021, from

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