Why snipers have spotters

Imagine two highly skilled snipers choosing and eliminating targets in tandem. Now imagine I take away one of their rifles, but leave him his scope. How much do you expect their abilities to be decreased?

Surprisingly, there is a strong case that this will actually increase their combined sniping competence. As an economist would point out, this stems from specialization: the sniper sacrifices total situational awareness to improve accurate intervention, and the spotter sacrifices ability to intervene to improve awareness and planning. We can push out beyond the production possibilities curve.

It is also a result of communication. Two independent snipers pick their own shots, and may over-kill a target or miss a pressing threat. By explicitly designating roles, the sniper can depend on the spotter for guidance, and the two-person system means that both parties actually have more information than their cumulative, but separate knowledge without spotting.

There are also long-term positive impacts that likely escape an economist’s models from switching off in each role, or from an apprenticeship model. Eye fatigue that limits accuracy, and mental fatigue that may result from constant awareness, can be eliminated by taking turns. Also, if a skilled sniper has a novice spotter, the spotter observes the sniper’s tactics and can assimilate best practices–and the sniper, by previously working as a spotter, can be more productively empathetic. The system naturally encourages learning and improvement.

I love the sniper-spotter archetype, because it clarifies the advantages of:

  • Going from zero to one: Between two independent snipers, there zero effective lines of communication. Between a sniper and a spotter, there is one. This interaction unlocks potential held in both.
  • More from less: Many innovate by adding new things; however, anti-fragile innovations are more likely to come from removing unnecessary things than by adding new ones.
  • Not the number of people, the number of interactions: Interactions have advantages (specialization, coordination) and disadvantages (communication friction, lack of individual decision-making responsibilities). Scrutinize what interactions you want on your teams and which to avoid.
  • Isolation: Being connected to everyone promotes noise over signal. It also promotes focusing on competitors over opportunities and barriers over permissionless innovation.
  • Separate competencies, shared goals and results: To make working together worth it, define explicit roles that match each individual’s competencies. Then, so long as you have vision alignment, all team members know what they are seeking and how they will be depended upon to succeed.
  • Iterative learning and feedback: Systems that promote self-improvement of their parts outperform systems that do not. Also, at the end of the day, education comes from experimentation and observation of new phenomena, balance on the edge between known and unknown practices.
  • Establish ‘common knowledge’: Communication failures and frictions often occur because independent people assume others have the same assumed set of ‘common knowledge’. If you make communication the root of success, so long as the group is small enough to actual have–and know it has–the same set of ‘common knowledge’, they can act confidently on these shared assumptions.
  • Delegation as productivity: Recognize that doing more does not mean more gets done. Without encouraging slacking off, explicitly rewarding individuals for choosing the right things to delegate and executing effectively will get more from less.
  • Cheating Goodhart: Goodhart’s Law states that the metric of success becomes the goal. If you make the metric of success joint, rather than individual, and shape its incentives to match your vision, your metrics will create an atmosphere bent on achieving your actual goals.
  • Leadership is empowerment: Good leaders don’t tell people what to do, they inform, support, listen, and match people’s abilities and passions to larger purpose.
  • Smallness: Small is reactive, flexible, cohesive, connected, fast-moving, accurate, stealthy, experimental, permissionless, and, counterintuitively, scalable.

My most recent encounter with “sniper and spotter” is in my sister’s Montessori classroom (ages 3-6). She is an innovative educator who noticed that her public school position was rife with top-down management, politics, and perverse incentives, and was not finding systems to promote curiosity or engagement. She has applied the “sniper and the spotter” after noticing that children thrive best in either one-on-one, responsive guidance, where the instructor is totally dedicated to the student, or when left to their own devices in a materials-rich environment, engaging in discovery (or working with other children, or even teaching what they have already learned to newcomers). However, believe it or not, three-year-olds can often cause disruptions or even physical threats if left totally without supervision.

She therefore promotes a teaching model where there are two teachers, one who watches for children’s safety and minimizes disruptiveness. This frees the other teacher to rove student-to-student and give either individual or very-small-group attention. The two teachers communicate to plan next steps, and to ‘spot’ children who most need intervention. This renders ‘class size’ a stupid metric: what matters is how much one-on-one guidance plus permissionless discovery a child engages in. It is also a “barbell” strategy: instead of wallowing in the mediocrity of “group learning”, children get the most of the two extremes–total attention and just-enough-attention-to-remain-safe.

PS: On Smallness, Jeff Bezos has promised $1 billion to support education innovation. So far, despite starting before my sister, he has so far opened as many classrooms: one. As the innovator in the ‘two-pizza meeting’, I wish Bezos would start with many, small experiments in education rather than big public dedications, so he could nurture innovation and select strategies for success.

I would love to see more examples of “sniper and spotter” approaches in the comments…but no sniping please 🙂

From the Comments: The “Strong Defense” argument against libertarian realism

Dr Delacroix claims to have spotted a weakness in libertarian foreign policy theory (known as “liberal realism” in political science circles):

Millions of registered Republicans (like me) and independents (like younger people close to me) are unable to buy the Libertarian line because they see or sense that it contains a central inconsistency: I want less or much less government, government is crushing me, it’s inimical to freedom, but what I want can only be had within a strongly defended polity. Such a polity usually requires a powerful defense establishment. Such an establishment, in turn undermines the possibility of smaller government.

This type of argument has been repeated ad nauseum in popular discourse and here on the blog, so it is – as Dr Delacroix points out – fair game as far as debunking (over and over again) goes. I have just three things to add.

1. The fact that “millions of registered Republicans” believe in something does not make it true. Millions of registered Republicans also believe that a radical Jewish rabbi came back to life three days after being crucified by the Roman state.

Even if billions of people believed that something false was actually true it would not make the falsehood any less false. Free trade is another great example of this phenomenon. Billions of people falsely believe that free trade is a bad thing, including some very smart people.

2.  Big does not mean strong. In fact, bigness often leads to weakness. This is the point that libertarians have been making for hundreds of years. The US could conceivable cut its defense budget in half while Russia and China could double their defense budgets and the US would still outspend the entire world on defense. A large military is often overstretched and therefore unable or unwilling to respond to threats elsewhere. Libertarians do not advocate for a smaller state because it makes the state weak. Libertarians advocate for a smaller state so that it can perform the few duties ascribed to it (courts and diplomacy/defense) with a ruthless efficiency.

3. A more libertarian foreign policy would be one with a much smaller budget, a much smaller role for the military, and a much more serious role for the military. If a libertarian US were to go to war it would declare that war and fight the enemy until it surrendered completely. I’ve already dealt with this in “Would a libertarian military be more lethal?” and “A cheaper, stronger army?” Dr Delacroix is either arguing from ignorance or he does not read much outside of his preferred circles.

In a society dedicated to the freedom of the individual, war is the last resort in diplomacy. As such, it should viewed with the utmost seriousness and skepticism. Even if millions of people feel otherwise.