Flirting with the Churn CurveBy Nathan Coultis September 1, 2020
BLUF: Military staff produce too much churn and we should stop doing this. Further, we should be more critical of the work outputs we generate and preference the utility of value over the superficiality of copious but unnecessary or unrealistic, detail. An unnecessarily detailed justification for this argument now follows…
In an era of accelerated warfare, I want us to revisit and fully consider ‘churn.’ Specifically, to define it and consider the impact it has on military staff processes and our staff work products. I have created a model to help illustrate the issue, but more about that later. Most readers will be familiar with the concept of ‘churn,’ and moreover will have experienced the joy of participating in a large staff planning activity, or even personally manifest it in a solo-effort generating workplace or training product – such as an IMAP/TEWTs on promotion courses or elsewhere. Individually, we often know in the depth of our own mind exactly the point where the good work we have produced – what we personally esteem as a high-quality, well-considered, or value-additive output – descends to the level of ‘churn’. That is to say, we all know on an intuitive level, when we have yielded up work-for-the-sake-of-work, ‘filler’ product, or meaningless/unnecessary detail simply to pad out our work, and in effect ‘simulate’ (rather than genuinely produce), value-additive detail.
To be fair, we are also the product of a training system wherein the work-ethic and the organisational practices programmed into us lends itself towards ‘churn’ as a viable approach of individual assessment. As a result, many of us are trained and conditioned by a system that inadvertently selects and esteems the ability to produce a high yield of output within a very short period of time. But it would be a mistake to assume that this system trains us specifically to produce a high yield of high-value output within a short period of time. Rather, as long as we heap a top-layer of ‘quality’ work evenly atop the layers of ‘filler’ work beneath, and this top-soil is sufficiently deep to survive contact with the assessment mechanism, all we require of the lower strata is to hold a place for, rather than actually be, good quality outputs. This inculcates and conflates the reasoning that more is better when it comes to both staff work and detail in planning outputs.
To be clear, I am not being critical of the processes we employ (the most obvious being MAP), but rather, the products we generate as a result of over-extending the application of these processes; especially when we then stand back and appraise them on the basis of what I assert are mostly superficial factors. I would argue that we should hold off on the admiration for the effort on display and be more critical of the work itself from a value and utility-based framework. In this view, we would esteem succinctness, clarity of a central idea or
theme, economy of information and compact presentation; rather than indulge the bluff that is an over-whelming demonstration of information and misconstrue evidence of effort invested in the work with evidence of value contained in the work.
But what is ‘churn’? I would define it essentially by two key parameters; that which is either unnecessary or unrealistic (or both, where one leads to the other).
Allow me now to properly introduce the Churn Curve, to illustrate my argument.
The Churn Curve explained
- The Churn Curve shows work generation as a function of effort output (x axis) vs time (y axis).
- The central dashed line represents the theoretical maximum output we can achieve. This may be more or less ‘steep’ for each of us, depending upon our individual abilities and capacities, but the line depicted on this graph is generically representative each of us. The bell curve in the centre is the name-sake: Churn Curve.
- The purple area under the Churn Curve represents the work outputs that are value-additive. This is necessarily less than our theoretical maximum ability to generate a total quantity of work output. The content in purple is product with genuine utility.
- After a certain point, we cease to generate primarily value-additive content, and start to generate primarily value-detracting content (or at best, neutral-to-useless content). As you can see, the maximum work generation line continues on the same linear gradient even after we achieve our maximum value-additive output; however, the true utility of the work produced by the ongoing effort is subject to a diminishing return.  This junction is what I call the Churn Transition Point (CTP).
- The diminishing value of ongoing work might occur for various reasons (fatigue, diversion, chasing ground, etc.), but one critical issue I have observed is when we start to ‘stack’ assumptions upon assumptions (abstracting assumptions out of earlier assumptions), which build to create artificially-inflated levels of confidence in the legitimacy of a premise from which subsequent work is derived. This work in itself may become the basis for further planning and result in the generation of in-depth ‘detail’ in a body of work that is ultimately unrealistic or unnecessary. Often, such ‘detailed plans’ are unrealistic because they are abstracted out of proportion to a reasonable prospect for the factors that they are based upon actually being realised.  Hence the effort invested is a waste.
Other key features of the Churn Curve include:
- The Churn Curve lags between Time:0 and Time: Churn Transition Point (CTP). This is because there is a period of grappling with the parameters of the problem or task for us to determine how to proceed with it. We need to appreciate, understand, prepare, adapt and explore the parameters of the task requirement before we hit our stride in generating a productive output in response to the requirements of that task.
- After the CTP, there is a diminishing return that naturally limits the utility of the work-outputs we generate. Thus, an ongoing investment in the effort is of questionable value (nevertheless, work often persists due to staff momentum).
- Shortly after the CTP, the utility or quality of outputs diminish as a proportion of the overall effort invested. A point is reached where the practical value of persistence ceases. This is represented by the black vertical line. After this point, we might best maximise our utility of effort by accepting the output as it currently stands and move on to the next task at hand. Self-evident is the wisdom contained in that well-worn phrase: ‘80% on time is better than 100% after the fact’; and commanders might also do well to take a mature approach towards a doctrine of incomplete staff work, if or where essential utility is achieved earlier than expected (i.e. ‘75% before time is even better than 80% on time...’)
Some examples of 'churn' (and hotspots for where to find them) that I would particularly like to call out are:
- Unnecessary or excessive detail in a plan which is purely cosmetic or designed to demonstrate (or falsely give the impression of) depth of consideration or analysis; or emphasise productivity over substance (e.g. COAC-style tactical talc over-lays with excessive superfluous peripheral information).
- Detail that cannot be logically supported by a realistic appreciation of real-world factors (e.g. often seen in supporting BOS annexes contained in OPORDS).
- Detail that is predicated upon an exceedingly low probability of events; or events assumed (with unrealistic levels of confidence) to occur in a certain specific way; or a succession of events occurring in a very narrowly-scoped and specific order (e.g. this often features in both IPB and MAP course of action plans, specifically within the DEs and TCVs).
Essentially, after the CTP, we commence ‘making up’ more than is plausibly justifiable based upon the known starting parameters of the task and/or limits on initial planning factors; or limits on what is known; or limits on what can be reasonably known at a later point (e.g. not realistically accounting for our ability to verify assumptions). When the detail of a work exceeds these limits, it is not a comprehensive or visionary plan, it is simply ‘churn.’ And this lends towards another military truism: ‘plan early = plan twice’.
Overall, ‘churn’ occurs when we unreasonably exceed our assumptions, or create unnecessary or unrealistic levels of detail in our product that exceed a realistic likelihood of it being required or realised. A critical appraisal of task requirements, combined with a minimalist but essentialist approach to addressing them will best avoid ‘churn.’ And commanders should be prepared to judge product based upon its utility and value, rather than the defacto metric of effort expended in its synthesis.
On a final note, one other novel feature of the Churn Curve is what I like to call the Wedge of Ironic Grades on Promotion Courses… this is a slim wedge after - and above - the CTP that follows (for a time, at least) up along the dashed line of theoretical maximum effort output, and is roughly constrained on the y axis at the ‘80% on-time!’ cut-off line. Essentially, this is the zone where certain people have the ability to BS the DS within the bounds of plausibility, whilst simultaneously not being underpinned by any substantive reasoning or qualitatively-useful work. Humorous whilst on course, but concerning when habituated in the workplace (but you can only flirt so far before it becomes obvious to everyone…)
Happy staff work to you all!
 I have witnessed instances where a person’s ability to ‘sell a bad plan’ with confidence, is evaluated above the ability to develop a good plan in the first instance; thus I must inevitably question the value-proposition of this selective approach to assessment as a training outcome in its own right. After all, a confident corpse is still a corpse…
 Further, this essentially co-opts manoeuvre warfare theory’s mission command principle – by subverting its essential planning processes when we generate plans that are overly directive or excessively (and implausibly) detailed, this in fact unnecessarily constrains options for lower-level planners and restricts the exercise of dynamic command leadership after H.