The Paradox of Control

The Paradox of Control

David Zelaya

One of the most praised and routinely ignored ideas in the Army is the philosophy of mission command. The virtues of a clear end-state, simple purpose, disciplined initiative and prudent risk are roundly praised in lectures, LPDs, and initial counseling; however, when rubber meets the road, the first shot is fired and the proverbial shit hits the fan lofty ideals go out the window and leaders find themselves grappling with the burden of uncertainty. Many rely on the edict that “if you want a job done right you best do it yourself.” They take comfort in the certainty of their own actions. Unbeknownst them, however, they are falling prey to a paradox of their own making and is simple to understand: under uncertain conditions increased control on subordinates increases uncertainty and the possibility of failure.

The purpose of this paper is to outline the paradox of control in a rigorous but clear manner to help leaders overcome its effects. To overcome the paradox, however, leaders must understand the problem formally because anecdotal and informal explanations often fail to communicate “why” the paradox is so pervasive. A fitting analogy is the relationship between the Newtonian theory of gravity and the Einsteinian theory of gravity. Newton’s equations paint a picture of gravity that “feels right” and corresponds with our observations of nature. Newton, however, remains silent as to “why” gravity behaves in accordance with his equations. Einstein’s idea of a fabric of space-time that conforms to the existence of mass and whose contours manifest themselves in what we feel as gravity explains the “why.” It is my goal to outline the contours of the paradox of control to clearly outline how to overcome it.

Defining the Problem

In accordance with the Army’s problem-solving model, to overcome a problem it must be understood. Understanding uncertainty and its dangers requires us to define the variables and perimeters of the unknown and unknowable. The first and central idea that drives the paradox is the concept of success. According to ADRP 5-0, para. 2-90, “…the commander’s intent succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation.” It includes the operation’s purpose, key tasks, and the conditions that define the end state. The expanded purpose addresses the operation’s relationship to the force as a whole; key tasks are “those activities the force must perform as a whole to achieve the desired end-state”; the end-state represents the condition of the operational environment at its conclusion in relation to friendly forces, enemy forces, the civilian population, and the terrain.

For our purposes, the key tasks outlined in the commander’s intent represent those things that are necessary and sufficient to achieve success. Therefore, mission success is defined as 100% completion of all key tasks; failure is defined as anything less. This is obviously a simplified version of the actual number of control measures placed on subordinate units; however, the simplification aids in the understanding of the principle. The principle can easily be expanded beyond key tasks to other control measures; in fact, the principle is magnified when additional control measures are included in the assessment.

To achieve success as defined by the Commander’s Intent, leaders must develop courses of action (COA) that get them from their current state to the end state via key tasks. Any given operation has an infinite set of COAs that can be applied to the problem. Some of those COAs will lead to success and others will lead to failure. Of the COAs that lead to success there exists a subset of COAs that are feasible, suitable, acceptable, distinguishable, and complete. In accordance with the Army’s Problem-Solving Model (outlined in ADRP 5-0), leaders then compare their COAs to one another to arrive at an optimal decision.

COA’s are communicated to subordinates through mission orders. The COA, manifested in the mission order, is composed of control measures placed on the subordinate unit. A control measure can be permissive or restrictive but in all cases, it limits the options available to the subordinate unit and maintains control of the operation at higher echelons.

A mission order additionally provides subordinate units the structure and method of command and control for the operation. The Army’s preferred method of executing command and control is through the philosophy of mission command. Mission command focuses on providing subordinates clear and concise commander’s intent while minimizing the total number of control measures. With minimal guidance but a clear understanding of commander’s intent subordinates are empowered to accept prudent risk and take advantage of chance opportunity through disciplined initiative.

Often juxtaposed to mission command is the idea of detailed command. The philosophy of detailed command focuses on giving subordinates highly constrained COAs that maximize and centralize control with the higher headquarters. While often viewed as opposites, both forms of command and control must be utilized to achieve mission success.  

The Army is clear that both philosophies of command and control have their place and are optimal for certain situations. The exact conditions that best facilitate their use, however, are often unclear. It is in this lack of clarity that the Paradox of Control is most evident. The paradox can be outlined in three statements:

  1. We tend towards accepting risk and providing minimal guidance when under conditions of certainty.
  2. We tend towards accepting less risk and requiring increased control under conditions of uncertainty.
  3. Optimal decision making would entail the opposite for both statements 1 and 2.

Optimal Decision Making Under Conditions of Certainty and Uncertainty

To gain a thorough understanding of the paradox it’s critical to understand two major factors: the decision maker and the maximizing principle. The decision maker in this context is the commander. Under conditions of certainty the commander will choose the COA that accomplishes the mission at the least cost to combat power and effort. The maximization of combat power and effort is tied closely to the principle of simplicity. For each unit of additional combat power or effort there must correspond additional coordination that manifests itself as an additional control measure. For example, to increase combat power from one platoon to two platoons in an attack additional planning effort must be applied to generate controls like unit boundaries, restricted fire lines, objectives, logistics resupply points, mission command nodes, and leadership.

Commanders are combat power maximizers because battles are iterative and combat power and effort must be conserved for the future. As a combat power maximizer with perfect information, decision making is relatively simple and becomes a problem of arithmetic.

COA I: low combat power conservation < COA II: high combat power conservation.

Figure 1.  Optimal Decisions Under Conditions of Certainty

Under conditions of imperfect knowledge and uncertainty the equation becomes a risk assessment. Along with the maximization of expected combat power the commander must assess the probability of success for the COA in question. The combination of the probability assessment and expected combat power leads to a risk out-put. The commander compares multiple COAs in relation to risk and accepts that COA that is the least risk for the highest reward. Refer to Appendix 01 for a formal outline of the assessment.

The probability of a COA being successful is comprised of the probability of the subordinates accomplishing 100% of their key tasks (types of control measures). The lower the probability of any of those keys tasks the higher the chance of the COA being a failure. For example, if there are two key tasks in COA I and each have a 50% probability of success, then the combined probability of both key tasks will lead to a 25% chance of success for the COA as a whole. If COA I has an additional key task added that has a 50% chance of being accomplished than the probability of success for COA I drops to 12.5%. Therefore, the more controls placed on a subordinate unit under conditions of high uncertainty the higher the likelihood of not meeting mission success outlined in the mission order (specifically the commander’s intent and key tasks). These additional controls represent a poor allocation of combat power, time, and effort.

While uncertainty can never be fully removed from any situation, there are key factors that a commander can control to mitigate risk and reduce uncertainty. The most obvious method is through reconnaissance with either his assets or those of another unit. However, the application of combat power in the form of reconnaissance assets forward increase combat power commitment and decreases simplicity. A commander’s ability to fight for information will always remain his primary tool in the fight against the unknown; however, like a combat multiplier, mission command can be leveraged to compliment the reconnaissance fight and mitigate risk. Mission Command and its emphasis on reducing unnecessary control measures allows Commanders with the most access to information (and the least level of uncertainty) to make decisions that will have the highest likelihood of success.

This idea differs significantly from the Army’s current risk management model. The Deliberate Risk Assessment directly implements controls for every hazard identified. The system forces leaders to increase constraints on subordinate’s initiative in the name of risk mitigation. Along with deliberately increasing control measures placed on subordinate units, the Army’s model is biased towards costs and hazards. The assessment only considers possible hazards a unit might face during an operation; the model omits any mention of possible gain for an operation. This bias inherently leads to micromanagement and excessive risk aversion. 

The philosophy of mission command focuses on providing the subordinate unit minimal controls to achieve the commander’s intent. By minimizing the total control measures placed on a unit the Commander is making available all the sets of COAs that fall within the commander’s intent. It is up to the subordinate (who has the most information by being closer to the fight) to choose the COA that maximizes simplicity and the likelihood of success.

Under conditions where uncertainty is relatively low, the commander can achieve efficiency by utilizing detailed command and reducing friction and decisions for subordinates. Commanders can essentially give subordinates “the answers to the test,” thereby reducing the amount of effort and decisions expended by lower echelons. While the relationship between increased control and increased uncertainty still holds, under conditions of relative certainty, the risk is significantly reduced. For example, if a COA has two key tasks that each have a 95% chance of success, then the COA as a whole has a 90% probability of success as a whole. The addition of a third key task with a 95% chance of success only reduces the chance of success to 85%. The minimal additional risk associated with high certainty tasks are worth the gains in combat power and simplicity to subordinate’s planning effort.  The savings in effort and combat power can then be applied elsewhere.

The level of certainty required to efficiently utilize detailed command is often derived from repeated experience in relatively stable situations. The obvious caveat here is that a leader must remain vigilant that circumstances have not changed to a degree that a once certain problem has become uncertain. This style of leadership requires a high level of constant involvement by the commander or leader.

Fighting the Paradox

Fighting the urge for unnecessary control is a difficult addiction to break. It requires trust not commonly seen, especially when outcomes are unknown. There is no hard and fast rule or formula that outlines the perfect number of key tasks. It takes repetitions and failure to find the “sweet spot” and even then, nothing in our profession is guaranteed. There are some TTPs leaders and staffs can use to mitigate against the paradox of control.

1. Align effort against writing the Commander’s Intent: The Commander’s intent is too often a quick “copy and paste” from a higher echelon order. Leaders often to nesting their commander’s intent with their boss’s. They then move directly to the details of execution. Instead, leaders must understand that if all else changes and falls away a commander’s intent should be the rock on which they are left standing. The Army’s Design Methodology is one of the best tools to develop a commander’s intent.

2. Avoid the extremes: Providing too little control is just as suboptimal as providing too much control. A vague commander’s intent provides subordinates no direction or boundaries. In such situations, leaders will often find subordinates paralyzed and apprehensive. Units become overwhelmed with uncertainty and have no idea what decisions they can and cannot make. They lack the context and understanding of their role and the role of others in the broader operation.

Conversely, overly detailed mission orders, restrict units and don’t allow them flexibility to adjust during execution. If things “go off the rails,” similar to the opposite circumstance, leaders lose context and become paralyzed. Often units will find themselves fighting a plan that no longer fits the situation.

3. Understand errors: Errors in decision making can take two forms, as outlined by figure 1.2. You can make the right decision about a course of action and simply get an unlucky outcome. This would be like taking a bet that had a 90% chance of winning but still landing in that unlucky 10%. You can also be wrong and lucky. In this situation the wrong choice was made but the “odds were in your favor.” Of course, it always helps to be lucky in the short terms but you win in the long term by being right. This distinction is critical because we often panic and grasp for control when things don’t go as planned. To avoid jumping to conclusions and making a bad situation worse, it’s critical that leaders understand their environment. When things go wrong it’s very possible that luck was simply not there but that the decision and COA are still valid. Changing the operation in such a situation would only lead to additional complexity and increase the chance of failure.

Figure 2. Understanding Errors in Decision Making

4. Give Subordinates the Right Tools to Increase Understanding: When things don’t go as planned, it’s critical understand why things are not going as planned. The best way to gain situation understanding about a problem is to trust subordinates, allow them to develop the situation, and have them report back as accurately as possible.  To accomplish this successfully subordinates need to understand what information they need to report and how that information informs a decision. This is done through information requirements conveyed in the mission order.


The paradox of control is like a storm that slowly builds over time. Each change of plan is like a subtle darkening of the clouds and each misstep feels like a strike of white lightning. Our instincts urge us to regain what we’ve lost. We want to rush to the helm and right the ship as the winds slowly build and the waves crash. In our panic we often over compensate and lead ourselves astray, into the eye of the storm. By the time we’ve realized our folly it’s too late and we find ourselves lost in the maelstrom.

Trust is key. Trust, however, is built over time through commitment to the philosophy of mission command. Trusting that a subordinate will adjust to circumstance correctly is difficult. It takes repetition to build that trust but, once gained, trust is a powerful tool. It enables those with the most information to make the choices that most matter. It allows true flexibility in the face of the unknown.

I trust that what I’ve done above helps outlines the science of control; fighting the paradox is the art of command. The greatest leaders of our time led their formations with nothing but a few notes jotted down after deep contemplation. It is my hope that I’ve facilitated that contemplation for future leaders. 

The author would like to extend a special thanks to MAJ Gary Klein for his input and guidance during the drafting of this article.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Army or U.S. Department of Defense.

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