Staff Skills

A round peg for a round hole: a new approach to non-operational decision making

By Greg Colton February 6, 2020


The Army is an organisation that prides itself on its ability to plan. Our capacity to plan complex operations in adverse conditions against an adversary trying to defeat us is at the very core of the our existence. It's our raison d'etre; it's in our DNA. More than one senior officer has commented that it is what sets us apart from the other arms of government and our operational planners have been welcome, and valued, members of coalition headquarters around the world.

So why is it, when we are so attuned to operational planning, that we can sometime manage to make such a mess of planning daily activities?

The current problem with non-operational planning

Having lived this issue as an infantry battalion S3 (Operations Officer), a staff officer labouring away as part of the beast that is Army Headquarters, and now as a staff officer in TRADOC, I think that part of the issue is the way in which we approach non-operational decision making. Too often we either defer to the Military Appreciation Process or we convince ourselves we can rely on experience alone to guide our decision making: the latter, in effect, a process that lies somewhere between 'shooting from the hip' and 'gut instinct' that we legitimise by terming it 'Commander's Intuition'. Both these approaches are problematic.

Operational Planning Tools

Operational planning tools, such as the Military Appreciation Process (MAP), are designed around an Army's concept of waging war. For the Australian Army this is the manoeuvrist approach, a key tenant of which is to focus all your actions on the enemy's centre of gravity. Indeed, the entire process is (or at least should be) focused on generating effects to defeat an armed adversary. Using it to plan non-operational activities, such as the introduction of new training initiatives, unit relocations or Army-wide reform programs, seems nonsensical and yet it happens more often than we would prepare to admit. I suspect we've all been part of a planning team whose commander has forcefully announced that the planning will be conducted using the MAP "because that's the planning tool for the Army" and then spent hours, or days, trying to cognitively bash a square peg into a round hole. 

I will be the first to acknowledge that the MAP is only a tool and can be amended by the user as required. But, to me, this misses the point. The whole purpose of the MAP is to create an operational plan founded in manoeuvre theory. Sure, we can try and adjust it and use bits as we see fit, but that doesn't mean it remains optimal for the task. Both a tractor and a rally car have great off road capabilities, excellent grip, and a steering wheel, but you are unlikely to win the World Rally Championship in a Massey Ferguson. 

Intuition

As for relying on intuition, experience can certainly be useful in providing context. However, it can also readily mislead the planner or commander into bypassing analysis of the problem and jumping straight to a solution. While experience is useful in helping us learn from past mistakes and, importantly, in providing guidance to those who may not have been in similar situations, it can also be misleading when approaching complex problem solving. The medical profession has led the world in the development of evidence-based decision making precisely because an over-reliance on experience was leading to misdiagnosis and mistakes, often with fatal consequences. One of the strengths of systematic planning is that it reduces confirmation bias caused by the brain's inclination to recognise patterns and create cognitive short cuts. 

A proposed solution

If the problems to non-operational planning are the use of an operational planning tool and gut-feel, then it stands to reason that the solution should be a planning tool that is designed specifically for non-operational planning and which harnesses experience while reducing the potential for cognitive bias. Ideally, this planning tool should retain the language of the MAP series; after all, comfort in planning processes is more likely to lead to efficient staff work. 

A proposed solution is the Military Staff Decision Process (MSDP) which can be found here. The MSDP is a non-operational decision making tool that seeks to aid planners support decision makers. It makes efficient use of time through incorporating 'stop' mechanisms throughout to minimise the risk of nugatory planning. It also supports the constant improvement of Defence through the deliberate consideration of measures of effectiveness and the inclusion of a double learning loop. Most importantly, it continually emphasises the necessity of ensuring that plans are nested within the higher commander’s intent, are fully resourced, and that outcomes are measurable: thus resulting in plans that are genuinely both effective and efficient.

Conclusion

Current decision making tools in the Australian Defence Force are largely based on official versions of the MAP. These are augmented by planners relying on experience to propose solutions. While these methods have some utility in supporting decision making, they are unashamedly focused on operational planning and open up the risk of cognitive bias. As a result, they can be unwieldy and difficult to adapt for non-operational decision making, despite the latter forming the vast majority of the decisions that are made every day in the Department of Defence. The MSDP seeks to redress this by providing a focused tool to support non-operational decision making. 

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What do you think? Does this concept have utility or as an organisation focused on warfighting should the Army be using the MAP to support all decision making? You can contribute to the debate through posting your thoughts below.

 


Portrait

Biography

Greg Colton

Greg Colton is an infantry officer with 18 years’ experience in both the British and Australian armies, including operational service in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Pacific. Greg has had range of regimental, instructional and staff postings and recently took a years’ sabbatical to accept a Research Fellowship at the Lowy Institute, Australia’s leading international policy think-tank. While at the Lowy Institute he ran a Defence funded project examining drivers of instability in the Pacific. On his return to the Army, Greg assumed his current position as SO1 Professional Military Education at Forces Command. He is also Director of The Cove.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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