Small Wars Journal

Improving Mission Command… With a Map

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 12:03pm

Improving Mission Command… With a Map

Joe Byerly

“It is terribly difficult for military men to keep their methods adapted to rapidly changing times. Between wars the military business slumps. Our people lose interest. Congress concerns itself with cutting the Army than with building it up. And the troops…find a large part of their time and energy taken up with caring for buildings, grounds, and other impedimenta. In view of all the inertias to be overcome, and in view of the fact that our lives and honor are not in peril from outside aggression, it is not likely that our Army is going to be kept to an up-to-the-minute state of preparedness.” -William E. Lassiter, 1929

Are you comparing today’s training budgets to what we had in 2007-2008?

As the opening quote suggests, budgets have the tendency to shrink during the interwar years (there has to be another conflict at some point-we’re human right?). These reduced budgets can greatly impact our “up-to-the-minute state of preparedness” at the tactical level if we aren’t creative. If we wait until we get to the field to talk tactics or test decision-making ability, we will be behind the power curve when our nation calls us to fight.

Tactical decision exercises (TDEs) provide low-resource training with large pay-offs. A good TDE can be developed in the course of an afternoon, and all it requires is a map, some markers and acetate, and your mind.

Below, I’ve provided the framework for 4 TDEs that will help you train your subordinate leaders when you can’t leave the motorpool. While I would like to take credit for these, they were developed by militaries of the past, when their own budgets weren’t looking so hot.

1.) Develop a Plan with Imperfect Information

This is a 10-15 minute timed exercise. Develop a scenario where your subordinate has to make a decision and issue verbal orders. Create a list of enemy events that you will share with them over the course of the allotted time. The events should start out with vague clues as to the enemy’s intended course of action, and get more concrete as time elapses. Once your subordinate feels like they have enough information, they leave the room and begin planning. The goal is to get them comfortable with making decisions, without having a 100% clear picture of what the enemy is doing.

2.) Do I Follow the Original Order?

Give your subordinate the following: commander’s intent, mission statement, and tasks to maneuver units. Develop a scenario where the situation changes and they must break from the original task to accomplish the intent.

3.) Plan on the Move

Issue a brief operations order to your subordinates and then load-up into a van. Make them plan a particular type of operation, with a map and overlay enroute, to the first stop (clearly a timed event). Once on the ground, everyone briefs their plan, conducts a quick after action review, receives the next mission, and loads back up. The process repeats itself throughout the duty day.

4.) Meet Friction

Give your subordinates a few additional assets (fire support, unmanned system, etc.) in support of the mission you ask them to plan. Minutes before they are expected to brief you on their plan, pull the asset and make them adjust their plan with limited time given. The same can be done with maintenance- A vehicle never goes down when its time to execute the mission-right?

For all of these decision exercises, discussion is a critical component to maximizing the learning that takes place.

These exercises balanced with maneuver experience (which may be few and far between) may help to:

  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Keep leaders familiar with tactical mission graphics
  • Increase decision-making speed
  • Expose gaps in knowledge (both subordinate and leader)
  • Creates a great venue for leader/subordinate dialogue
  • Builds confidence in decision-making abilities
  • Offer the ingredients necessary for effective Mission Command

For more on how you can use these exercises to help improve decision-making ability read Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

One final note, if in reading this you immediately thought to yourself “I’ll just grab some of the exercises from the back of the old Armor magazines.” Stop! (1) Those were based off old organizations that don’t exist anymore. (2) Planning on a real map, with acetate is a much better experience. (3) Developing your own TDE will make you a smarter leader-trust me!

If you have ideas for other types of TDEs, please feel free to share them in the comments box below!


Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/28/2013 - 8:53am

In reply to by carl

carl----a really good officer friend of mine who has served over 20 years and is definitely getting out once said concerning the current army culture---one cannot feed a bear marshmallows with your lips or he will kill you---ie meaning ignoring you, talking around you and over you, sidelining you and killing you career via the OER.

You are 300% right---I was surprised to see these two articles as they go to the heart of the current failure of mission command being ever implemented in this current Force.

The suggestions were spot on and 400% correct but no other active duty officer engaged in the conversation---goes back to the bear thing.

Sad statement concerning the current Army culture among officers.


Sun, 10/27/2013 - 11:04pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09:

This may be just my cynical side coming out, but is the author actually in a position to discuss these things with us in an open forum? He is still in after all and the give and take of an open discussion may lead to places that the powers that be may not want him to go. It is very good that he is writing and publishing these articles. They have prompted much good back and forth. But a lot of control can be exercised in writing an article. Things can be written just so. In replying to comments and responding to responses, things can't be so tightly controlled and may wander into bad places. If they did and displeased higher ups, there may be unfortunate consequences. I hope this isn't so, it is my cynical side coming out after all, but if it was, that would be very bad so I wonder.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 10/25/2013 - 8:46am

In reply to by carl

Carl---you bring up a good point and I would enjoy hearing what the author has to say.

In fact what the author was providing is a method to teach mission command elements to the officers and staff officers in order to conduct mission command---mission command has two sides---the art of command and the science of control---the staff must learn and implement the science of control ie their staff processes---that is their piece of the mission command pie to master.

The commander is responsible for the art of command ie team building fostering trust, mentoring, open dialogue, prudent risk taking, and collaboration all aimed at fostering a common mutual shared understanding between his officers, his staff, and himself.

If he does not support this and or cannot foster trust and dialogue because of his personal makeup or he is a toxic leader AND the staff is firing on all cylinders on MDMP mission command will still fail badly.

If in fact the commander drives team building, trust and collaboration and the staff has the shared vision/understanding in theory all the units could go into total silence with no contact to the commander and they will still hit their objectives---that is the theory.

Reality though takes over as the current BCT and standalone Bde concepts envision the commander practically being gods in full command with little outside influence---that was the idea of the modular Bdes envisioned under Rumsfeld and has been the standard since then.

So you are 300% correct in what can a staff do if in fact the commander is toxic and or incapable of implementing mission command.

Very, very, very little is my experience---most officers in this situation simply get into a bunker mentality and weather their assignment until they leave after two years hoping for as little damage to their OERs as possible.

Now that might in fact change if the duty assignments go to three to four years as was the case in the last drawdowns in 1993--begs the question then if officers can hold out that long if their commander is toxic and or cannot master the art of command as required in mission command.

Right now there has been little or no change in the current culture and in my opinion in fact the implementation of mission command is dying a slow death for the exact reason of your question --what can a staff do if the commander fails in implementing the art of command.

Would be interested in what the author has to say on the topic of command failure and what can the staff do in that event.

There is something that is missing from this series of articles and it is a great big thing, especially if in order to effectuate good officering (I like making up words), a cultural change must occur. All the articles say what the commander should do or encourage. But none of them say what the subordinates should do when things get difficult or should expect from their commanders. You have to have both sides of the coin or it is just hints from a camouflaged Heloise that the guys with good characters and natural ability will be inclined to do anyway, and the jerks will find a way around.

This is why I think both sides have to be covered. Since 1979 the culture of multi-crew aircraft cockpits has been changed dramatically. It wasn't an accident. It was the result of an intentional decision to change that culture. The whole thing falls under the rubric of "cockpit resource management" or "crew resource management" (CRM). The idea was to change from the captain is a god not to be questioned no matter what, to the captain is the leader of the crew and must use all the information those walking talking neural computers can give him to make the whole evolution safer.

It involved teaching, insisting, the captains change their behavior and expectations. But just as importantly, and I stress this again, just as importantly, it taught the all members of the crew what their duties were, what they should do, and how the captain should act toward them. If the captain didn't act that way, he was failing. The duties and responsibilities worked both ways. This has been extremely successful and has since migrated to other places, like operating rooms.

In order for this to work, in my civilian opinion, it has to go far beyond helpful tips. It has to get into what the subordinate's duty is and what he can expect from the commander.

I realize that combat is different from flying, but if you don't get it right you can die flying. That is why CRM was invented and it has worked. This kind of thing won't transfer over exactly but I think my basic point can transfer over, you have to look at this from the bottom up as well as the top down.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 2:11pm

The author is provoking an interesting series of articles ie how to train mission command and how to convert the ADP 6.0 into reality that matches the current skill sets of the current tactical level staffs----by the way the suggestions apply as well to operational as well as strategic level staffs and their planning cycles.

Am happy to see great examples coming out of this particular group of instructors as they reflect experience gained in the field and it flys in face of mission command training coming out of Leavenworth (who are only interested in MC as it pertains to the staff processes) and the MCP program in Graf (who thinks academic readings and quotes will transmit MC).

The previous examples from this author provide a bridge to mission command in a way that allows officers to understand the concepts of building mutual trust, dialogue in an open fear free environment, collaboration and prudent risk taking---using easy to follow examples taken from field experience and presented in a way that "makes sense".

The Force can only transition to MC when the Force truly understands that true team building, trust, dialogue, collaboration, prudent risk taking all flows out of a mutually shared understanding.

As an example---there will be a 28 page article coming out in Military Review talking about training and how to inject MC into training. This author's recent suggestions are much shorter in word count, straight to the point and easy to inject into daily unit activities something the mission command training groups just do not seem to understand.

The core question is whether the current LTC/COLs are willing to slide into the roles of team builders and mentors---that I am not so sure will happen. Team building has not been a recent strength of this group and it is hard to build teams and foster trust--many argue there is never enough "white space" but this author gives examples on how to slide them into a normal work environment within that "white space".

A recently retired one star who had a solid track record in unit training once said the current Army culture will be only changed when a small hand full of officers "get it" and then transmit that "get it" onto other officers until the Force slowly on it's own shifts gears to join the initial growing number of officers "who get it".

Keep the examples flowing many are actually listening.