Small Wars Journal

Refining the MDMP for Operational Adaptability

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This paper argues that the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) contains a number of critical flaws that significantly detract from its utility, and while these flaws could be largely circumvented when planning for conventional operations, they are a major barrier to planning for complex operations characterized by “ill-structured problems”  and “persistent conflict” . This paper claims to represent the logical evolution of the MDMP in accordance with TRADOC Pam 525-3-0 The Army Capstone Concept, Operational Adaptability: Operating under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict 2016-2028, which “lays the conceptual foundation for Army modernization”.

The paper argues that the MDMP is burdened by linear procedures that do not reflect natural cognitive processes and proposes an alternative model based on six concurrently developed components derived from the systems approach to problem solving. It is proposed that progress in planning should not be perceived as progression through pre-defined steps, but as the changing state of key attributes of planning models and the environment; attributes such as scope, uncertainty, accuracy, precision, risk, resources, criteria and objectives.  While generic pre-defined steps will always be a fallacy, these key attributes are always real and must always form the basis of decision making. In other words our planning model should be descriptive, not prescriptive. By seeking to prescribe a sequence of activities, the MDMP forfeits the ability to properly describe the problem and proposed solutions.

Readers familiar with the latest iteration of FM 5-0 The Operations Process will probably recognize that the introduction of design is intended to mitigate many of the problems described throughout this paper. Design thinking has great potential to enhance our collective sense-making and problem solving, but the current implementation is undermined by attempts to synchronize design thinking methodologies (strictly non-linear) with the old linear planning model. The messy interface between old and new threatens to cause more damage than the new doctrine is worth. Successful implementation of design thinking is dependent on the development of a planning model that supports it, and this paper aims to present such a model.

It is true that the MDMP does work at least moderately well as a tool for expedient decision making under certain conditions. These are:

 Objectives are predefined and very simple;
 Much of the plan is provided by a superior HQ in the form of specified tasks and control measures;
 There is a period of inactivity followed by a defined period of activity (an execution phase); and
 Flow of intelligence is primarily top down from a superior HQ to its subordinates.
 This paper will demonstrate how the utility of the MDMP is dependent on these conditions and propose a model that is not.

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About the Author(s)

Captain David Walker graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2003. He served as a troop commander in 39 Engineer Regiment and as SO3 Combat Engineers in the Headquarters Engineer in Chief before transferring to the Australian Army in 2006. He holds a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and a Master of Engineering Science (project management). He has seen operational service in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 12/10/2012 - 1:30am

In reply to by grizzlyadam

grizzlyadam---interesting comment in that you have recognized the fact that MDMP has reached the end of life as does software.

A number of us have reached that idea awhile ago and have been commenting on this here in SWJ--someone wiser than myself once said in the SWJ comments "changing MDMP is challenging the bear and if one pokes the bear in the stomach you are killed---ie sidelined, marginalized, killed with a poor OER or simply ignored"---he even quoted an interesting further comment--"you do not feed a bear marshmellows from you lips".

If we look at the concept the Army is pushing now with Hybrid threats reflected in DATE---handling multiple fast paced threats via MDMP is failing over and over in DATE exercises---WHY---with a linear cyclic decisionmaking process having a number of sub cycles as one trys to understand the OE it is difficult to nearly impossible to do that in MDMP.

When we sat on FOBs and had a target cycle of 14 days for a BCT and 28 days for a Division/Corp MDMP problems did not appear---try a 14/28 day cycle in a DATE scenario.

Now the interesting thing is when you look at the British example you notice elements of Design AND I would venture Mission Command and Mission Orders.

The Army culture needs to fully address the failures of MDMP---how to modify MDMP for DATE by incorporating Design---then and only then we can move on to Mission Command and ESPECIALLY the Commander and his issuing of his Mission Orders---which we are noticing virtually no CTC OC team makes comments on during BCT DATE exercises.

With the Mission Command emphais on the Cmdr building his team, building trust in an open dialogue,strong emphasis on the cmdrs Intent and Mission Orders have you even seen that being commented on in CTC DATE AAR comments?


Fri, 12/07/2012 - 3:22pm

I am Maj. Weece, a current ILE student currently in the middle of the MDMP process. I recognize the issues that CPT Walker makes, and also understand the attempts of design to add more latitude in the process to adapt for complex problems (which seems to be most of them). My most serious point of contention with MDMP, though, is the process itself. The system is so specific, so mired in its own structure, that it becomes useless without a repetitive teaching course. Even then, it's not intuitive. The steps describe to a point the products that should be derived, but only to a very narrow audience. The ability to use MDMP is limited to the amount of specific institutional knowledge that one has previously gained.
In contrast, the UK's Combat Estimate or Seven Questions is immediately understandable and adaptable to any level of operation. The simplicity of the system is in its very structure- questions absent of military jargon.
1. What is the enemy doing and why?;
2. What have I been told to do and why?;
3. What effects do I want to have on the enemy and what direction must I give to develop my plan?;
4. Where can I best accomplish each action/effect?;
5. What resources do I need to accomplish each action/effect?;
6. When and where do the actions take place in relation to each other?; and
7. What control measures do I need to propose?
Before we waste time changing the smaller, internal broken pieces within MDMP, we need to look at whether or not its worthwhile to save the whole animal. Any Soldier could be handed the above list of questions and generate a reasonable product at his or her squad level. No training involved. No rigorous explanation.
The intricacy of MDMP inherently constricts operational latitude because so much effort is spent in making sure the products meet the steps' individual criteria. In the process, it is easy to worry about the step and not the goal. In answering the questions, the user is driven to always focus on the end state. Isn't that what MDMP was always meant to do?

Outlaw 09

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 1:22pm

In reply to by bz

bz---you always seem to get to the heart of the matter. To me we have an inherent problem with the CTC concept of OC-T (observer controllers-trainers) I would rather see the concept of observing and mentoring.

Mentoring though takes a far different breed---one who can observe, notices where the synchronized swimmers are starting to go a stray, whispers in the ear of the out of synch swimmer by asking the question WHY and then allowing the swimmers on their own to reform and move on--a mover, a nudger not a checklister--Staffs must grow and they must grow through their ability to fail and or succeed.

Years ago in the out of date time of 1993 we use to talk about Trust and Grace---Trust that the Staff in fact can drive forward and Grace in allowing a Staff to fail---that Grace allowed Staff's to understand what went wrong and that Grace allowed the Staff to grow without fear.

The same goes for MDMP---we meaning the current big Army think that a Staff has to flow through every step of MDMP ie that is why the OC-T always checklists---while it is the checklist that justifies his job--justifies the CTCs-what he gets rated on---and what we use to justify the TDAs.

Some of us on the other hand think that yes we need to get Staff's back to a form of a MDMP skeleton simply as a mechanism to get the question WHY asked as well as making sure the swimmers are in fact going in the right direction.

Now here is where I go left and it differs from the CTC concepts---this MDMP skeleton should allow for swings left and right inside that skeleton as long it focuses on the mission order.

In some aspect mission command is where all CTC OC-Ts should be moving a BCT/RGT Staff. In order for a BCT/RGT Staff to be successful mission command must be successful as it is in mission command where the mixture of synchronization and synergy occurs.

If the Cmdr has built his team and has supported the development of dialogue and Trust inside a skeleton (whatever that skelton looks like) then the Staff will be comfortable in that skeleton---in fact we will have what you mention below.

"The staff of synergists assemble the bike parts together into working bicycles and ride them. The synergist leader runs a bike repair shop, and manages his staff to see the big picture while also putting out useful, meaningful outputs. Thus, the synergist also synchronizes, but he is not a slave to outdated and redundant practices."

But as long as the OC-Ts at all CTCs maintain their checklist mentality and do not focus on really what mission command actually is we are doomed to checklists.

How many times in the last year has a MCTP team rolled in from Ft. Levanworth or from where ever and hit the checklists? How many times did they though sit down and attempt to work out the trust issues and massive micromanagement we are seeing in Staff's at all levels-seldom to none.

Just a side note I recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy about the simple question "can a Army of checklists implement mission command" so your comments on checklists are interesting.


Mon, 11/19/2012 - 8:40am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I may once again violate Bumperplate's point on how design splits hairs on vocabulary...but as they say; words matter.

Consider the difference between the word "synchronize" and the ugly yet critical design word, SYNERGY.

1. To synchronize something means all of the elements are moving in a specific planned direction/activity at the planned time, so that the overall unit accomplishes a mission. Consider the sport "synchronized swimming"- one could synchronize a unit staff to produce MDMP outputs just as a team of swimmers learn a routine. The issue becomes not as much about the action (everyone appears to be in synch), but of the output- bad processes coupled with poor understanding of the situation leads to synchronized swimmers moving to a bad routine. They may all move together, but they are moving in the wrong directions!

2. To synergize: I like to use the metaphor of bicycles. A staff that uses only MDMP uses a reductionist and analytical logic that makes huge piles of bike parts. Each staff section has tunnel vision on their specialized part, and while they can fill volumes on what a bike chain does, they do not relate it to the rest of the parts. A Commander with a reductionist staff might synchronize his team to do MDMP, but they end up with piles of bike parts, moving in the wrong direction, although synchronized. Training centers tend to reward these staffs instead of critiquing them because they too confuse synchronization with synergy. The staff of synergists assemble the bike parts together into working bicycles and ride them. The synergist leader runs a bike repair shop, and manages his staff to see the big picture while also putting out useful, meaningful outputs. Thus, the synergist also synchronizes, but he is not a slave to outdated and redundant practices.

Thought you might have some observations on the differences from the training center perspective. I saw quite a bit of synchronization recently in the DATE, but not as much synergy. Most of the O/C focus in the AARs also appeared to be centered on synchronization (did they do a written FRAGO? Check. Did they issue it over FBCB2 and push graphics? Check. Did they improve their IDF clearance time by at least 5%? Check...)


Outlaw 09

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 7:48am

In reply to by bz

bz---my current issue with Design and or MDMP is the following---up to 2003 most unit Staffs did understand and could in fact drive ahead using MDMP---then came along COIN where the targeting cycles slowed down to 14/28 days, we sat on FOBs/COBs, and manuever using MDMP went out the window to now the current condition where units are having extreme difficulty during a DATE rotation with MDMP when MDMP does need to function and it is not working.

Design is something that is to me extremely critical, but as you indicate if one goes to academic vs to doctrinish then Design falls on deaf ears.

The problem is inherently in our current doctrine---if you look at ADP 5.0 it states that Design is driven by the Commander and occurs before, in parallel to or after MDMP and that is about it for the "how to do it".

We need to somehow get Staffs gently back to functioning in the world of MDMP and the WHY do you do something during the various MDMP steps BEFORE we dive off the edge with them into Design. If someone whould have told me a year ago that Staffs need to go back to the crawl phase with MDMP I would have not believed it.

In some aspect we see that with Mission Command---just how many Staff officers/NCOs could if asked define via the JP what synchronization is and then look at the how it was incorporated into MC.

1. Per JP: The arrangement of military actions in time space and purpose to produce maximum relative combat power at a decisive place and time.

2. Through the mission command warfighting function, commanders integrate the other warfighting functions into a coherent whole to mass the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time. ADP 6.0 page 9

Check the last nine words of both definitions---mission command is synchronization of the staff processes driven by the Cmdr and the Staff-just how many Cmdrs, Staff officers, and Staff NCOs currently understand that?

Just my opinion.

"The articles on Design need to either stop using references that seem to only be found in the SAMS knowledge repository, or get these references out to the USAPA site or in some way get them on the street for mass consumption. Whether Designers know it or not, they are breeding a parochial atmosphere with these Design articles. I know part of the effort is to simply educate, but it's not really doctrine, it's certainly not well understood and not instructed to any satisfactory level at PME - so, what it looks like is a bunch of academics talking Design and telling the unwashed masses that still use MDMP that we're unsophisticated and too simple to grasp true problem solving. Getting riled up and telling us the difference between "complicated" and "complex" when Merriam-Webster doesn't see such a large distinction, is not helping."

- good observation, and I concur.

- As a design advocate, I am concerned as well with these issues.

- thus, when producing articles that attempt to introduce new design concepts and approaches (because design is always adapting, transforming- it will continue to generate new ideas; there never will be an FM or ADP that "covers" design); how would you recommend refinements in our approaches? A few thoughts to add;

- Many ask the universal question, "show me a solid example of design working, so I will accept design and understand how to apply it." -this is a very, very tough thing to ask in one article or chapter. Even when design writers here at SWJ narrow in on one or select design concepts, they get asked for this universal explanation. That may not be feasible for a variety of reasons.

- If you go "too academic"- you lose half your audience from the start. If you go "too doctrinish", you lose the other half. Split your approach down the middle and you end up losing both! At times, it seems useful to write two versions of a design article for both audiences...

- On MDMP and fusing design; which gets fused into the other? Do we cram design into some steps of MDMP and wrap a "mission command" bumper sticker on the whole thing? Do we integrate components of MDMP into design and abandon elements of detailed planning- thus rock the PME and doctrine boat (and threaten the institution)? Or do we split it down the middle, accomplish nothing, confuse everyone, and continue to be unable to approach uncertain conflict environments effectively?


Outlaw 09

Sat, 11/17/2012 - 10:13am

This is an interesting article especially when looking at the premise of it in 2011 vs. the ground reality of a recent DATE rotation in the JMRC and the reality that units are having extreme difficulty in implementing Design.

At the conclusion of the last DATE rotation completed several weeks ago at the JMRC---the failure of MDMP was evident to all observer/controllers and outside consultants working with the RCT.

The idea that WGs replace MDMP or that one does not even need MDMP was apparent across the entire unit.

If one cannot even get MDMP complete to at least a 40% level just how is Design to be implemented and or even used in a fast paced DATE environment?

This DATE rotation cements the view of some of us that Design is in fact buried nicely in multiple points inside MDMP--BUT if there is a total lack of Trust in Staffs/Staffs and Commanders, if there is massive micromanagment by officers and a disconnect of the NCOs with the Officers just how is Mission Command and Design ever to succeed?

This trend has been clear since late 2006 and it is only coming to the surface due to DATE as DATE forces units to finally get back to the basics of fire and manuever in a fast paced multi threat environment---which all maneuver units will struggle with as they have sat on FOBs and COPS for the last ten years.

The questions of C2 via CPOF in a fast paced environment---how does one manage the COP/OE understanding when units are scrattered literally across the country and on the move? JUMP TOC-what the heck it that? Fighting positions what the heck is that???? Briefings via a briefer and butcher block/pinned up maps-navigating with compasses/maps and not BFT-terrain studies with a map----FRAGOs via radio and copying them by hand-you have got to be kidding.

We really do need to get back to the basics and yes what worked in 1993 definitely works in 2012 EVEN in a multi threat environment and even in the face of what some of us grey beards have been trying to say since 2007 and then hearing the common statement of "been there done it and have five T-shirts and you do not know anything"---looks like we were right all along.

G Martin

Sun, 10/16/2011 - 10:00pm

CPT Walker- great paper. As I was reading it I couldn't help but think of two things:

1) This gets at what I felt was one of the critical issues with the way SAMS had introduced Design: how to get at the iterative concept of reframing. Somehow you were supposed to constantly reframe- but after doing MDMP and issuing a top-down order, realistically reframing wasn't going to happen until a new commander arrived- if even then.

2) which also reminds me of a senior commander speaking to us after his Iraq deployment. He described their MDMP process prior to deploying and then concluded that they stuck with 80% of their original plan while they were there- only needing to change "20%" of it. This was interesting to me on two levels: we had just been studying the impossibility of planning that well prior to engagement in a complex environment, and, 2: the MDMP process obviously was something that lent itself to a product that one would be ultimately graded on- therefore changing it was tantamount to admitting you hadn't planned well enough. We all had learned that we couldn't plan well in complex environments, but the system was set up to punish you if you admitted that. Small wonder that when I talk to a lot of small-level unit leaders who have been to Afghanistan multiple times, they often remark that we seem to be doing pretty much the same stuff we were doing their first tour.

I think your point about objectives is well-taken. Other commentators have mentioned in this forum that we make things more complex ourselves- by either not stating the objectives clearly, or making them so broad that it does us little good. If that is so- maybe a "solution" would be to change our doctrine--? Maybe we should attempt to limit our objectives--? Instead of coming up with a doctrine that advocates broad objectives (establish security, develop the economy, and establish governance), maybe we should demand that our commanders and planners establish clear objectives, during each unique situation--? I would argue that if we don't do that, then we damn our efforts anyway- as the people of a democracy won't tolerate a fuzzy logic underpinning the deployment of troops for too long. And wouldn't clear objectives make this process more conducive to iteration?

Bill M.

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 10:03pm

Captain Walker,

Congratulations on an outstanding article that clearly articulates the issues many of us have been wrestling with for the past few years. What I found amusing is that I actually produced a plan recently using your proposed model, not because it was prescribed, but simply because it made sense. This is an excellent approach for developing campaigns, a planning process that MDMP cannot support in my view.

I'm going to make your article mandatory reading for our planners, and I know many will embrace these ideas immediately, while others will want to know how to do this step by step. MDMP is sadly an engrained process/doctrine that has seriously degraded the ability of U.S. Special Forces' staffs to plan more complex campaigns over the years, and the effects of this process on the Army for complex operations have been equally damaging. MDMP serves a purpose for crisis action planning where the objectives are clear cut and of relatively short duration as you indicated in your article, but outside of that realm at the operational and strategic level it is a hinderence. Escaping from the MDMP doctrine will take time, because stupid isn't good enough for us, we have to institutionalize it, so we even issued MDMP software to some organizations that produces your MDMP slides for the all important mission brief. MDMP is the Hotel California syndrome, once you enter it you can never leave :-).

Perhaps what I appreciated most was your explanation of complexity. When you stated that modern war was complex and we didn't have a planning method to address complexity, my initial thoughts were here we go again with the world is more complex now than it was during WWII, yet right after that you brought up a great example,

""Had Montgomery been charged with bringing the North African tribes together under a single national government with functional democratic institutions, he would have certainly been engaged in what we would describe as complex warfare. So either we are just amusing ourselves with faddish terminology, or there is something other than the environment that determines the extent to which warfare is complex.""

Then you put the finishing touch on your explanation when you added,

""Objectives are the cause of complexity and the impetus of all design, so they must be recognized as a central component of any robust planning model.""

Once again well done! You definitely helped me clarify some of the ideas I have been struggling with.


Sat, 10/15/2011 - 3:50pm

I too found the article to be a good one and have to echo Ken White's comments about the credibility of a "mere Captain". It's a pathetic statement about our leadership and institutional maturity that our Army still thinks along those lines. But it does.

My complaint would be this:

The articles on Design need to either stop using references that seem to only be found in the SAMS knowledge repository, or get these references out to the USAPA site or in some way get them on the street for mass consumption. Whether Designers know it or not, they are breeding a parochial atmosphere with these Design articles. I know part of the effort is to simply educate, but it's not really doctrine, it's certainly not well understood and not instructed to any satisfactory level at PME - so, what it looks like is a bunch of academics talking Design and telling the unwashed masses that still use MDMP that we're unsophisticated and too simple to grasp true problem solving. Getting riled up and telling us the difference between "complicated" and "complex" when Merriam-Webster doesn't see such a large distinction, is not helping.

Someone, somewhere, needs to make a decision about Design. Use it, expand it, get rid of it - but do something. Same goes for MDMP - make some decisions. We seem to be spinning our wheels with this Design v. MDMP thing.

Ken White

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 11:09am

This is a superb article.

Regrettably, some will likely be inclined to discount it because the Author is a 'mere Captain,' it flies in the face of the US' wrong headed effort of the 1970s to dumb-down everything on the very flawed rationale that simpler things could be easier taught (and graded...) and everyone could learn to adapt as they gained experience -- and, most importantly, perhaps -- because it was 'not invented here.' Such discounting would be a mistake.

All opponents are not going to wait for us to catch up as have the last and current few.

We should discard MDMP before it does real damage in a more intense and far faster moving war...