A Bridge too far.........or Mission Creep?

Metaphors are not unknown in business communication (see "Food for Thought", 16 January 2014) and military ones are especially popular. The reasons for this are obvious - the role of leadership, and the need to plan and manage complex resources apply in both spheres. However, it's important to be clear what particular metaphors mean and whether they really apply as intended.

This is the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in the Netherlands, which in September 1944 was the focus of "Operation Market Garden", part of an Allied strategy to reach the industrial heartland of Germany as quickly as possible. Arnhem was the final bridge targeted for capture, but a lot of things had to go right. Unfortunately they didn't, and the details can found in many other sources. "A bridge too far" is therefore taken to mean an excess of ambition and a corresponding over-commitment of resources without adequate alternatives or fallback plans. It's an "all or nothing" proposition - Allied commanders regarded Market Garden as 90% successful, but ultimately a failure.

The positive aspect of such situations, if there is one, is that the planning errors soon become clear, especially as external pressures overwhelm the project. It's then abandoned and the assessment of what went wrong can begin.

On the other hand, with "mission creep" the original mission continues, usually unconsciously, far beyond what was ever envisaged, and with negative consequences. It becomes essentially open-ended. Late colonial wars and engagements with guerrilla armies are an example of conflicts that continue much longer than intended. External factors clearly play a role, but the availability of resources, especially if they're not realistically priced, often make this possible. Mission creep in given environments also seems particularly hard to analyse and explain.

Heavy stuff, especially if you're involved, but in everyday and business language, one is "cutting your losses", while the other is "throwing good money after bad". Neither is welcome, but of the two, the first is usually the better outcome.


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