My “what does size mean?” adventure

World Ward-2 — Political Science — Complexity Theory

In the below paragraphs, I explore how the scale (the forest or the trees) we organize collective action at, impacts organizational outcomes; namely the complexity an organization can handle. This capacity for complexity enabled me to develop a working definition of “size”.

“Organization” as the key explanatory factor

In this essay, I rely on Wilson’s assertion that “organization” was the key explanatory factor of the outcome of the Battle of France. Below I summarize Wilson’s refutation of some common misconceptions about the German success (I thought we’d get these out of the way first):

  • Was Germany’s attack a surprise? It wasn’t. Germany had already invaded Poland and Norway, and intelligence gathered by France pointed to an imminent attack.
  • Was the German army bigger? No. the German army had fewer soldiers and it did not have as many tanks as France. The best French tanks were larger and more powerful than the German ones (they didn’t have radio capability, however, which meant it was difficult to coordinate their actions).
  • Was technology a deciding factor? As late as 1943, a typical German infantry division had more horse-drawn vehicles than motor-driven ones (it required twice as many tons of hay and oats as oil and gasoline). Additionally, key breakthroughs in the battle were achieved by foot soldiers; they paddled rafts across the Meuse river and then had to climb up steep banks or dodge enemy fire across open fields.
  • Was political fanaticism a factor? There is disagreement amongst historians about the role played by Nazi ideology in motivating soldiers.
  • Was the German strategy superior? It wasn’t; it was very risky and had many vulnerabilities that were never exposed.

World War 1 & Trenches

To understand the organization of France’s army in World War-2, we need to examine the widespread adoption of trench warfare in World-War-1. By the start of World War-1 firepower technology ( machine guns and artillery) had become more advanced than mobility technology (e.g. tanks). This meant that you could protect a position by shooting at an enemy (that had to cross an open field on foot) from a stationary position and therefore put an emphasis on defense and the development of trenches.

Word War-2

What France learned from World War-1

The below video from the movie War Horse shows how difficult it was to advance on enemy positions supported by machine guns/artillery. This was the main French takeaway from World War-1; they set up their army to fight a stationary war of attrition; they organized around a squad whose task was to fire, support, and defend a machine gun. This was reflected in the training of soldiers which put little emphasis on maneuver. This also led to large investments in advanced “trenches” like the Maginot Line. Most importantly, their assumption of a static war led to a hierarchical command structure that didn’t enable fast decision-making (decisions took days).

German organization

Germany’s context led it to different conclusions. The treaty of Versailles, which brought World War-1 to an end, restricted the size of the German army, which meant that they couldn’t afford a stationary war of attrition. They focused on figuring out how to overcome the trenches and came up with two solutions:

  1. Make soldiers bulletproof (by putting them in tanks) and;
  2. Make soldiers hard to shoot at by focusing them on infiltration as opposed to open-field battle.


In the below paragraphs, we’ll use the above example to link “size” to complexity and to explore the interaction between scale and complexity.

Zooming In and Out

Imagine the French army generals using an interactive map to decide on how to organize their army; they would have zoomed out to a coarse scale, defined the enemy as a big unit, and concluded that stationary machine guns are a good option for aiming at a big target acting coherently (i.e. advancing on a trench). Additionally, they would have reasoned that a big unit cannot change direction easily, and didn’t make the speed of decision-making a priority in the design of their command structure.

Size and Complexity

A simple way to think about the relative complexity of systems is to compare the amount of information it takes to describe them (for example: as measured by the number of characters). The French army was designed to act as a large coherent body protecting a position against another large coherent body. The resulting organization had limited options for action at a fine scale; machine guns were pointed in the same direction, at the field of battle (with the infantry servicing them). The preceding sentence is a reasonable description of the system, and its brevity suggests that the system had a low degree of complexity.

What does this all have to do with “size”?

It is my impression that when we talk about “size” (e.g. that organisation is clunky and slow) what we really mean is capacity for complexity; if there is a mismatch between the complexity of a system and its environment, there is trouble. An organization is “too big” if its complexity is lower than that of its environment.

What does scale have to do with “size”?

Let's visualize the relationship between scale and complexity in the below figure. Observe how simple behavior can maintain the same level of complexity as you increase scale. In the case of the French army, as you zoom out, you see more and more machine guns pointed in the same direction. You could aggregate their behavior as if the individual machine guns add up to a bigger one.


So when we think about “size” we need to think about the complexity of the environment and how an organization addresses that level of complexity. In the next essay, I explore how the hierarchical and networked modes of organization impact a system’s potential complexity. I’ll be using examples from my own experience; a failed consulting project and a weird company with 5 CEOs.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store