Small Wars Journal

Flattening the Decision Cycle in Tactical Units

Sun, 10/20/2013 - 8:47am

Flattening the Decision Cycle in Tactical Units

Joe Byerly

In accordance with ADP 6-0 Mission Command, the philosophy of mission command is based on 6 principles:

  • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust
  • Create shared understanding
  • Provide commander’s clear intent
  • Exercise disciplined initiative
  • Use mission orders
  • Accept prudent risk

All of these are much easier to recite than to actually internalize and set into practice. There is a simple solution already in tactical doctrine that could help leaders embrace the six principles much easier.

A decision point is an event, an area, a line, or a point on the battlefield where tactical decisions are required. Decision points do not dictate commander’s decisions, they only indicate that a decision is required, and they indicate when and where the decision should be made to have the maximum effect on friendly or enemy courses of action.

During the planning process commanders might require subordinate leaders to do the following: “Identify 3 decisions that you will have to make during the course of this operation and discuss them with me during the back brief.”

This simple step will potentially have the following effects:

  1. Commanders and subordinates gain a shared understanding of potential situations that may arise during operations.
  2. Commanders and subordinates gain a greater appreciation for how each other thinks which increases the likelihood that both sides will accept prudent risks.
  3. Subordinates begin to understand they can trust the commander to support them when timely decisions are required, thereby speeding up the process.
  4. The decision cycles of the entire organization are greatly decreased during actual operations

Mission command is like a marriage; it takes a lot of work and open lines of communication, and there is no better time to do this in a military setting than before the actual battle begins.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/21/2013 - 1:47pm

In reply to by Sparapet

Sparapet---on the toxic leader article there is an interesting comment about officers learning to be self critical by jcurtis.

I really do believe that toxic leadership is at the heart of the bleeding of CPTs as they are realists and see what is happening and understand that with the drawdowns it will only get worse and are jumping when they can land nicely on the civilian side. I would go further and say look at the increasing numbers of MAJs that are leaving.

This group of CPTs are risk takers and the risk of jumping ship is minor in the face of what they have been through the last years.

With the drawdown mediocrity will rule much as it ruled when we went through the 1993 drawdowns. Then it takes about 8-10 years to get through the mediocrity.


Mon, 10/21/2013 - 10:27am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I am curious why (or rather if) you believe that the current crop of CPTs is immune to the supposed cultural failures of the crop that were Company Commanders and S-3's in 2003? I think that given chance, those officers would have been no less critical of their BC's and above as those that have Commissioned since. They were habituated to the "toxic culture" and are now in charge of habituating their subordinates.

I don't necessarily perceive any changes that would impact this tendency in PME, officer evaluation, or service cultural norms of today. There have certainly been a lot of changes, but in this matter I have my doubts. If we blame the toxic culture for pushing out too many promising officers (which I think is appropriate, in part), we must then accept that those that remain might tend to be more tolerant of it, and the critical mass needed for change in the absence of led change from committed senior leadership cannot be achieved.

Which brings us back to the following issue. The junior Captains today that make it through their commands successfully and then pop smoke for greener pastures will open up the opportunities for those that are not as accomplished or those who more willing to toe the party line. Add that the Army, for example, was bleeding Captains like a severed artery up to 2010, the very crop that had the most experience with the worst of Iraq and you have a corps of captains that might, on average, be headed in the same direction that their predecessors went in terms of command climate and cultural norms. While Afghanistan has picked up the experience slack somewhat since, the scale is smaller, and therefore the crop is smaller.

So, how does one get Mission Command and what this article talks about to stick to this dusty surface that we call our officer corps?

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 6:00am

In reply to by major.rod

major.rod---I said Lt promotable CPT or CPT. The above officer breakout comes straight from a active duty deploying CR from 2013.

Secondly check you deployment math on the actual strengths of deploying BCTs.

From 2006 through to 2010 most BCTs headed to Iraq were running 65-max 70% fielded strength. During the Iraq surge a BCT of the 3ID deployed with just 61% and had 132 walking wounded ie on medical holds etc who had to deploy regardless of medical conditions.

Many BCT staff positions, BCT commander, and BN commander positions often did not get filled until either the NTC rotations or in fact some joined just prior to actual deployment.

In 2009 I know of one specific BCT that the Commander joined just before the NTC rotation and the BN commanders three days before the rotation.

Thirdly check the creation of the MI sections that were added to tactical companies---even the company FSOs were wearing three sometimes four hats.

Sorry that you left the Force before things got really interesting.

After spending time as an civilian OC facilitating over 41 deploying BCTs from 2006 to 2010 think I know the ground game of the BCTs.


Thu, 10/24/2013 - 2:26am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

"An average say Stryker BN staff is composed of the following; approximately 4-5 LTs, a CPt who may be the S2 and LT-CPT promotable at say the S3 position or a CPT with the XO being say a MAJ. And yes companies tend to have a modified staff using the limited officers available earing multiple hats."

Where are you getting this? What BN/Year was that? I've never heard of a BN having a lieutenant as an S3 except in the heat of battle of WWII when units suffered 200% casualties. I retired in '05 and maintained contact with many field grade officers and NEVER heard of LT serving as an S3 of a BN!

Additionally units typically deployed with 100% or a little over fill. You described a staff barely at 100% for officers. The MTOE provides for a primary and alternate staff officer in every section and additional ones in the S3 shop (e.g. commo, NBC etc.).

What officers are available at the Company level besides the XO? Did this unit pull lieutenants from platoon leader positions to fill non TOE staff jobs?

"Secondly, take the period 2005 through 2009 most Lts on the tactical side deployed as Plt Ldrs, then came back on a second rotation as young company commanders and on a third possibly as a CPT on a BCT staff." Possible. I misunderstood what you were first saying. I took it as you were saying "most officers had three rotations before CCC". So in three years of war officers had 2 months at home between rotations which is ridiculous. It's entirely possible for CPTs with up to 10 years in service to have three rotations.


Thu, 10/24/2013 - 2:30am

In reply to by Brian Harris

Brian - WOW! I knew it was bad with the emphasis on conops. We've been very lucky to not fight a more formal enemy or at a higher OPTEMPO.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 5:49am

In reply to by Brian Harris

Brian---now the conversation is extremely interesting ---an example of the current culture thing as you mentioned your previous CGSC instructors comment.

There will be an article coming out in the Military Review on mission command 28 pages strong that basically talks about how one puts MC into training environments---but at the end of the 28 pages one has to ask just what the heck are the two authors trying to say. Needless to say both of the authors "feel" that MC should be more academic kinda like SAMs/CGSC courses where one learns about mission command from quotes, and reading articles.

The other side of the fence myself included have been trying since 2006 to change MDMP and incorporate those things that staffs inherently understand what works and makes sense to that particular staff officer or staff section ---not caring if in fact it collides with "true" MDMP.

A lot of times officer/staff officers/staff sections get it right not knowing the why behind it but out of fear of the boss hold back their thoughts/actions and open dialogue/collaboration does not occur.

In a time constraint environment it is all about speed and trust---the more trust that a officer has in other officers and between staff sections the faster the decision cycle gets-regardless of the method of decision making.

I have never been one for doing it by the book as that leads to a check the box mindset and micromanagement and a distinct lack of prudent risk taking, but the culture pushes massively back on changes to MDMP as it views that as a potential attack on the culture itself.

Example---I worked with a staff of a missile defense unit that at first did not function well together--- went over and over in open discussions about trust building/mentoring, collaboration among staff sections and officers and reducing dependence on powerpoint and mentored them during several key training events.

Kept hammering away at the concept if it works for you regardless how ugly MDMP is run with it and they developed much like your officers---after several key training events they reached a level of collaboration among the officers/NCOs and commander that surprised even them during a major international training event---sections would cover down on each other--conversations flowed between TOC floor and the planners and the briefings to the commander was exactly 30 minutes long and with virtually no questions from the commander as he was amazed at the thoroughness of their thinking and presentations.

There developed what is called mutual and shared understanding, speed was amazing in some of their final sessions AND when one walked into their TOC it was quiet, professional and fully focused BUT extremely quiet.

BUT did their shared decision making follow each step of MDMP hardly and in fact it developed into a three step process.

When they finally reached this level after a year the staff was torn about and one had to start all over again in the rebuilding of a new staff--never made sense to me.

Would be interested in hearing what your former CGSC instructor would say to the results you are seeing with your classroom modifications.

Mission command is correct in that officers/NCO/commanders must build trust and that can only occur in a open fear free environment that allows for collaboration---it is all about speed.

Great comments--

Brian Harris

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 5:31pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Well I work with the Author, haha, so yes we very much challange the current concept of MDMP. It was explained to me by a retired CGSC instructor as the Armys answer to a process of making plans like making cars; one step at a time.

In Cavalry Leaders Course, we focus on the outcomes vs the process/ products. We also push our students to have this output in roughly 6-7 hours, while cutting away the BS and focusing on the meat of the problem. This still leaves ample time for IPB/MA (with multiple enemy COAs, something people seem to forget about doing) and for COA development/ comparison.

The problem with following what I would call "traditional MDMP" is becoming a slave to the steps/ products vs the purpose. This results in a lot of time for various sections to either sit twindling their thumbs OR, more dangerously, working ahead of the group (i.e. The 3 shop develops a COA before the S2 has finished developing his picture of the enemy and terrain).

Collaboration is a must in a time constrained MDMP scenario, and its amazing to watch students go from barely getting anything done on week one to full blown, executable mission orders by week three. Are they perfect? No way, no plan is. but they have enough meat on the bone to allow execution. And they dont spend 2 hours making sure the font is right on every slide... if they even HAVE slides!

And this is where adaptation comes into play. Shameless plug for my recent article in Armor magazine about Mission Command, but MDMP must result in a detailed plan, but not so detailed as to stiffle creativity or adaptation in the face of a changing environment. Doctrine even talks about this in ADRP 5.0, 2-130. These more-easily forecasted changes can be identified in MDMP and planned for (hence the discussion about NAI/CCIR/DP development) but these are simply OPTIONS, not the only possible outcomes.

Most planners, in my opinion, try to work the "all or nothing" approach to staff work; either its chock full of details and becomes mirred under its own weight, or it's so light on detail in order to allow "freedom of maneuver" for subordinate commanders- resulting in no sync or nesting of efforts beyond a cursory "Commanders Intent" paragraph.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 3:29pm

In reply to by Brian Harris

Brian---now you are getting into a really interesting discussion.

A number of us have for the last several years often stated here and over at Tom Rick's Foreign Policy blog that MDMP has in fact undergone a number of modifications. In fact with the shift to DATE scenarios especially the recent DATE training scenarios being conducted at the CTCs these modifications are coming back to haunt the Force. The modifications put into play over the last five years may be fine for insurgents but does not work well for DATE as DATE is forcing units back to using the pure form of MDMP.

NOW comes the interesting point---the current culture is pushing hard back to MDMP while the young officers have in fact moved onto a "modified decision making" which clashes with the formal "military decision making process".

The interesting thing is that if these new modifications do drift into a new form of decision making then the culture of the past has to change---therein lies the core cultural dispute.

There are now a slew of trainers/facilitators trying to implement mission command and tying it to MDMP for example.

Those of us who dared write about this "problem" were basically told to get back into the box.

There is a saying---one does not feed a bear marshmallows with your lips because he will kill you---killing you defined as not listening to you, ignoring you, sidelining you, killing your career.

I would challenge you that the author of this article is in fact challenging the current culture of the traditional form of MDMP.

I would like to see more suggestions from the author on how he would in fact slide these modified elements into a new form of MDMP thus getting us closer to actually implementing mission command into the tactical level decision making.

Have said for awhile the that formal MDMP can in fact be reduced down to about three or four steps, but that really would change the current culture and bring in critical thinking and a form of being adaptive that is needed in the coming years if mission command is to be successful.

Liked you comments---

Brian Harris

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 12:32pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

This is a massive assumption that units were even DOING MDMP while these pre-CCC captains and LTs were performing staff functions. In a year as an AS3 we did MDMP ONCE, and that was the deployment prep. As a troop commander overseas I can't recall MDMP being the method by which my higher task force planned anything.

Units are rarely using the book method of MDMP, I see it (or it's absence) all the time as an MTT instructor in the armor school. They cut corners, pass over MA/IPB and start things off with a directed course of action, which then leads you down the road of "well do we really need to even wargame this?"

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 11:15am

In reply to by major.rod

major.road---an example that counters.

An average say Stryker BN staff is composed of the following; approximately 4-5 LTs, a CPt who may be the S2 and LT-CPT promotable at say the S3 position or a CPT with the XO being say a MAJ. And yes companies tend to have a modified staff using the limited officers available earing multiple hats.

That makes a tactical BN heavy on Lts who in fact have to do primary staff duties---so I do stand by the comment.

Secondly, take the period 2005 through 2009 most Lts on the tactical side deployed as Plt Ldrs, then came back on a second rotation as young company commanders and on a third possibly as a CPT on a BCT staff.

Thirdly, a number of CPTs up to late 2012 were getting into the CCC after at least two rotations and were scheduled out again after completion of CCC filling empty BCT slots in other BCTs.

Part of the heavy rotation years saw officers assigned to a unit for the deployment rampup or they joined just prior to deployment, then deployed, and when they came back were ripped out of their units and reassigned to another deploying unit with a little training between rotations.

It should be pointed out that OCs assigned to either Ft. Polk and or the NTC served two years-but were extended a year and ended up in their CCC as MAJs.

So yes Lts and CPTs had a fare amount of MDMP exposure before hitting their CCC


Mon, 10/21/2013 - 10:43pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

"most officers ie Lts and CPTs especially up to 2012 had at least three if not four rotations"

That's factually incorrect. CPT's typically attend the CCC at around the four year mark. Subtract a year for BOLC and other basic training. That's three years. We are NOT turning officers around as they get off the plane to get on another one to deploy. Army rotations up to last year were 12 months long. The ONLY officers that may come close are SOF whose rotations are between 6-7 months or prior enlisted who don't work in the company or BN head shed. Neither group makes up "most" officers.

I'd also disagree that the company MDMP is anything like what happens at the BN staff. Companies do not have a staff.

Finally, I reiterate that a lieutenant on staff is at BEST observing a small portion of the MDMP. A lieutenant in the S2 or S3 shop is not the primary and is likely the 3rd or fourth officer in that section. He's doing the slides. He's not doing the analysis. He's not interacting with other staff sections. He's doing the nug work to meet the time suspense and is only on the staff for a short period of time.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/21/2013 - 1:28pm

In reply to by major.rod

major.rod---all good points with the following exception---most officers ie Lts and CPTs especially up to 2012 had at least three if not four rotations to either Iraq and or AFG and at least in the BN level they were exposed to MDMP unless they were at Company level where MDMP was also practiced but in a modified way much as at the BN level.

In fact I would now argue that Company/BN level officers are the ones who actually have been driving a modified form of MDMP and that when they arrive at the BCT staff level there is a clash as the culture does not like MDMP being modified.

Would agree with the comment that they do not get full strength experience but experience they do have. You are right though---the how and why things are done they simply do not understand.

What is really interesting is that up through 2012 CCC gave them 6 weeks of MDMP training---one complete BN, one complete BCT operational planning cycle.

NOW in mid 2013 CCC has cut MDMP training by a full two weeks.


Mon, 10/21/2013 - 5:40am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Just one point.

I don't think it's surprising to have officers in the CCC that aren't familiar with the MDMP. Companies that don't have a staff don't do a full up MDMP. Further, considering their 36 months time in service to CPT which consists of basic branch training, 18 months as a platoon leader, a 12-18 months as a company XO and potentially some very minor position on a staff their schedule is full by the time they are tagged for CCC.

IF they served on a staff their time as an assistant to an assistant staff officer at the battalion level hardly exposes them to MDMP or demands that they understand the whole process. Their staff time is likely focused on learning how to generate the staff products as best they can and the adminsitrivia that is rampant in HQs. They simply haven't been exposed to the whole process due to no fault of their own.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/21/2013 - 4:04am

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward---you bring several points out that should in fact be discussed far deeper.

1. The DSM (decision synch matrix) has been/was a critical element in the MDMP and especially in the wargaming phase. really critical in the staff driven targeting process.

2. You rightly point out that the current LTCs/COLs and those that have moved onto to one stars were CPTs/MAJs when the long ten years of war started. You rightly point out the core issue is---why did this core group of officers become toxic instead of being mentors and facilitators and bridgers of knowledge to the younger generations.

I go back to previous comments made here in SWJ by Robert----this group culturally speaking learned that their future careers could only occur "by making the old man happy." At this point commander micromanagement and the attitude of there will be no failure on my watch otherwise I will miss the boat to one star began. Prudent risk taking went out the window as it does not drive the one star promotion track. Failure was not accepted at least during their deployments.

Reference to the DSM---most staff operations have degraded over especially the last five years to simple check the box processes with many staff officers not fully understanding what occurs when and what inputs/outputs occur when and why certain products are necessary during the various steps of MDMP.

I first saw the generic failures in MDMP when I gave ISR training (tied to targeting) class with 84 CPTs in their CCC (one week before they started the MDMP training phase. Not a single officer out of the class knew a single MDMP step. This was late 2011! AND this in the face than many had deployed a number of times prior to their CCC.

Things have gotten a tad better with PME and MDMP but only a tad---BUT the current young officers have I would argue have modified MDMP which is a separate conversation. The current culture is in fact pushing back on the idea that one can in fact modify MDMP and many of the younger officers see this and that is driving to a degree them out of the Force.

Note to the DSM---the DSM is critical in the targeting process--a process that is the single complete staff driven process in MDMP which by the way has also failed badly in the last five years. During a number of BCT rotations at the NTC in late 2012 BCT staff struggled massively with the targeting process and I could actually tell you when MDMP was drifting when steps were missed in the targeting process. The DSM is driven by multiple different staff sections and if one section does not produce their products then the whole process crashes.

If you think staffs have problems with the DSM---ask them to define synchronization and why synchronization is so import in targeting and MDMP.

I would tend to point at the failures in MDMP, DSM, toxic leadership, commander micromanagement as a failure in not recognizing that in fact both wars could have been effectively fought still using the old 90s full spectrum operations.

Somehow the Force thought that since insurgents are adaptive the Force has to become adaptive so we needed a new model to address being adaptive---the road forked at that point and we lost contact to the previous generational knowledge base.

I place alot of the blame for this shift in thinking at the feet of Kilcullen and his influence on the theater commander in Iraq in 2005/2006.

Just my opinion.

Brian Harris

Sun, 10/20/2013 - 9:14pm

In reply to by Move Forward

I believe the issue of a physical location of a decision point refers more to the concept of the LTIOV. For instance, if a unit is moving along a route and must chose whether to turn left or right at an upcoming intersection, the last time it can make this decision is upon reaching the intersection. Of course it can make that decision before that (hopefully based on good intel) but that's likely the event that must be considered.

A staff may plan to make a decision (based on war games or analysis) when conditions are correct for the said decision. It is likely but not mandatory for that decision to be when the unit is at a particular point (main body crossed PL Plum when recon unit observes NAI which provides intel for unit to turn left or right after crossing PL). You have to consider that intel may appear BEFORE anticipated which would cause the DP to be reached prior to the star on a map.

As for what is written and what is conceptual, well, having been involved in doctrine writing, I'm more than open to the idea that something may have been jotted down wrong in the manual. Or as one writer told me, "we have to write it to the lowest common denominator".

Move Forward

Sun, 10/20/2013 - 3:46pm

MAJ Byerly,

You seem to have identified a disconnect or at least a confusing area in current revised ADRP doctrine. There is no reference to "decision point" in ADRP 6-0 or ADRP 3-0, but there is in ADRP 5-0 and 2-0. There are a full three paragraphs on "decisive point" in ADRP 3-0. ADRP 2-0 discusses only "decision points" in several areas making references to NAI and CCIR. Is this a disagreement in doctrine or a simple confusion of similar but different terms?

<blockquote>A <strong>decisive point</strong> is a geographic place, specific key event, critical factor, or function that, when acted upon, allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an adversary or contribute materially to achieving success (JP 5-0).</blockquote>

Your definition in this article is this:

<blockquote>A <strong>decision point</strong> is an event, an area, a line, or a point on the battlefield where tactical decisions are required.</blockquote>

ADRP 1-02 says a <strong>decision point</strong> is:

<blockquote>A point in space and time when the commander or staff anticipates making a key decision concerning a specific course of action. (JP 5-0) See ADRP 5-0.</blockquote>

There is nothing about an "event" in the ADRP 1-02 definition of "decision point" or in ADRP 5-0 whereas an event is associated with "decisive points" in ADRP 5-0. The gist of "decision point" in ADRP 5-0 appears to be that it is related to branches and sequels of the plan, whereas decisive point is more related to the initial plan objective and commander's intent that MDMP and Design would develop. The three-paragraph discussion in ADRP 3-0 for <strong>decisive point</strong> seems to revolve a great deal around centers of gravity...which Army general purpose forces are best able to address.

Relative to Outlaw's comments, consider this from para 4-20 of ADRP 5-0:

<blockquote>A decision support matrix is a written record of a war-gamed course of action that describes decision points and associated actions at those decision points.</blockquote>

So how can a decision support matrix be good if MDMP and COA wargaming is bad?;)

In addition, with all this talk lately about toxic leaders and the superiority of young leaders, let me point out that that many LTC and COL of today were Captains and Majors when these wars started. Were they better early on and deteriorated with age, or was there something about 4-5 year long deployments that changed them...because the Army general purpose force wasn't large enough and they were forced to deploy to conflict that many times with so little break in between?

Outlaw 09

Sun, 10/20/2013 - 12:02pm

Joe---well thought through as this is in fact the way forward---this process/suggested way drives the concept of building trust using dialogue in an open fear free manner--ie collaboration.

It gives both the commander and his staff the ability to dialogue and through dialogue it builds trust and trust drives collaboration.

And it is easy to slide into the MDMP process.

BUT what is interesting many commanders and staffs have actually through the last ten years of treadmill check the box operational planning actually forgotten how to use decision points or what a decision matrix is.