Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mission Planning II

When you cannot make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take - choose the bolder.
-- General William Joseph Slim

A recent study by the US Army War College investigated critical behaviors of senior military leaders. Few skills ranked higher on the required attributes list than the ability to plan missions, solve problems and make decisions.

Times like these demand leaders who can plan, make decisions, and maintain a steady hand, especially under duress or during times of crisis. This series of posts on decision-making will highlight the four step planning process. These steps can be applied to any problem, whether to start a business...or to save one, whether to deploy an Army or to deploy a new product.

Step 1. Define the Problem

Mission planning cannot start without a deliberate effort to define the problem. Thus, this step begins with a thorough understanding of the big picture and the operational context for the mission. Leaders must have good situational awareness and be able to “see themselves” (organizational capabilities, individual skills and strengths, and activities of other “friendly” units with potential impacts on the mission), “see the enemy” (competitor actions), and “see the terrain” (operational environment, future trends, customer demographics). The business equivalent might be a formal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. This becomes a base from which mission planning can begin.

Next, facts and assumptions that apply to the problem must be analyzed and understood. Quantify what is known and make logical conclusions about what is not. Good situational awareness (SA) about the operational environment will generally allow for assumed future conditions that are close enough to support decision making.

Problem definition must then define specified and implied tasks and address:

-- What tasks are specifically required to complete the mission?
-- What tasks are not specifically required but are implied in order to reach the intended objective?
-- Of these tasks, which are absolutely essential, and must be highlighted as such in the final problem statement?

As with facts and assumptions, write out this list of tasks and make a special designation for those tasks deemed as “essential.” All tasks, whether specified or implied, must be assigned to some member of the team in order to successfully complete the mission.

Finally, restate the problem. Write out a mission statement that addresses the “Five Ws” – Who, What, Where, When, and Why? Ensure it addresses all essential tasks. The restated mission should be posted throughout the problem solving process to eliminate energy and time applied against the wrong problem – a common shortcoming in mission planning.

Following a detailed mission analysis and definition of the problem, leaders must provide the input that will shape the final plan. Issuing guidance later in the process results in wasted time and subordinate frustration.

Working with leaders at the Army's National Training Center, mission planning can be an exasperating exercise. Frequently, commanders would express their frustration about plans that were not what they wanted or that they knew would not achieve their intentions. Unfortunately, they never shared their intentions with anyone else! They failed in this critical step and had not provided the guidance necessary to shape the final plans. This is a critical leader task that cannot be delegated…or skipped.

Nor can this input be provided later in the process. I have watched numerous subordinate staffs “implode” after an all night planning effort was destroyed by commanders who interjected their guidance long after the “train had left the station.” Not only was critical planning time lost; so was the staff’s confidence in their leader.

Leaders influence the problem solving process by giving their vision for the end state and their general intentions for a solution. They identify what they are looking for in a viable course of action and those evaluation criteria (i.e. cost, speed, impact on customers, etc.) that have the greatest importance in the final evaluation. If leaders are willing to accept risk in some areas, and not in others, they make it known. Budget or time limitations are identified. The goal is to empower subordinates, to give them the freedom to develop creative solutions. Subordinates generally need only their left and right limits, if there are any. They’ll figure out the rest.

Step 2: Develop alternatives.

In mission planning, leaders should attempt to identify at least three possible courses of action, all of which must be viable alternatives for solving the problem. Each course of action must meet the following criteria:
-- Is it feasible? Don’t waste time on alternatives that have no possibility of accomplishment.
-- Is it sufficient? Does it address all the elements of the problem statement outlined above? A half-solution is no solution at all.
-- Does it meet the leader’s intent? If not, don’t consider it as a viable alternative.
-- Is it bold? At least one alternative should be audacious and blow through the boundaries of “business as usual.”

We'll review the final two steps (Step 3 - Analyze alternatives; Step 4 - Make a Decision and Communicate the Results) in the next post.

Leaders who fail to plan – plan to fail. These first two steps get the process rolling. They ensure that the mission is well understood and that available alternatives are identified before moving to a solution. These are skills we demand from our leaders, no matter the operational context. That makes the planning process…Leader Business.

No comments: