In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
-- Theodore Roosevelt
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. In the last post on this series, we looked at the first two steps of mission planning. We continue with those steps that translate intentions into action.
Step 1. Analyze the mission.
Step 2. Develop alternatives.
Step 3. Analyze alternatives.
Once alternatives are identified, they should be deliberately analyzed and debated with respect to their relative strengths, weaknesses, and risks. Potential courses of action should be measured against critical evaluation criteria (again, those criteria that will differentiate one alternative from another – i.e. cost/speed of implementation, savings, risk, etc.). Criteria with greater relative importance should be weighted accordingly.
Military leaders conduct a deliberate war game for each course of action. These are free-play exercises conducted on a map or in a computer modeling scenario that analyze alternatives by looking at enemy actions and friendly reactions, much like a game of chess. These movements are carried all the way through the final objective with notes taken, casualties assessed, and relative positions recorded. This is an effective way to understand second and third order effects of proposed courses of action.
War game results are entered into a “synchronization matrix” with entries for the enemy and each subordinate unit in relative time and space. Should a particular course of action be selected, this matrix becomes the basis for the detailed orders issued to each unit. While deliberate and somewhat time consuming, there is no substitute for seeing anticipated actions “play out” to enable an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and associated risks with the proposed alternative.
Step 4. Make a decision and communicate the results.
Leaders make decisions. That is what they get paid to do. After analysis of alternatives, it is ultimately the leader’s role to select a preferred alternative. If the recommended solution is not adequate or does not meet the intent of the mission, go back to the drawing board or, more likely, modify it as necessary to make it adequate. And while clearly the leader’s prerogative, exercise caution when rejecting subordinate recommendations (i.e. learn how to say no). Leaders must not destroy the creativity and motivation of the subordinate team.
Once an alternative is selected, move out. Leave no doubt about the decision and state, “OK, here is what we are going to do.” Issue mission orders and instructions to the entire team. Communicate task and purpose with guidance that is specific when specificity is required, and intentionally vague when subordinates have the latitude to work out the details on their own. Leaders must ensure that subordinates understand the big picture as well as their own individual requirements.
Army Ranger school is a lot more than surviving for two months on no sleep and one meal per day. It was a small unit leadership laboratory that emphasized the value of clear, detailed mission orders in the following format:
-- Situation – a detailed description of the big picture (both friendly and enemy perspectives). This provides the context for the mission.
-- Mission – the restated problem (from step 1). This section of the mission order gives subordinates the “5 Ws,” the most important of which, “Why?” provides the purpose and motivation for the mission.
-- Execution – includes a description of the overall concept of the operation along with specific tasks for completion and contingency activities based on friendly or enemy actions. All units receive both a task and purpose and understand whether they are in a support or a supported role. Coordinating details (time lines, mission rehearsal schedules, issues common to multiple units) further clarify subordinate requirements.
-- Resources– organizations are provided the necessary resources to meet the demands of the mission. Leaders understand the importance of their role as chief alignment officers and ensure that supplies and mission essential resources are sufficient to accomplish the mission. Forecasted resource demands are a critical output from the war game / alternative analysis step and help leaders proactively address key logistics issues.
-- Command/Communications – addresses critical communication issues pertinent for the mission such as the location of the leader on the battlefield and radio frequencies for communications during the mission.
Mission plans that result from this process are likely to be well thought out and reasonable solutions. They will synchronize the activities and responsibilities of the entire team. Most importantly, this approach to planning should produce a consensus decision, crafted by team members who take ownership of that which they must ultimately execute. Stay tuned for one more post in this series that looks at some other techniques for mission planning and decision-making.
Leaders who fail to plan – plan to fail. 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.