Small Wars Journal

It’s the Thought That Counts: Turning Battalion AARs into a More Effective Team Building Exercise

Tue, 09/01/2015 - 7:40am

It’s the Thought That Counts: Turning Battalion AARs into a More Effective Team Building Exercise

Jimmy Byrn

In The Wisdom Of Teams: Creating The High Performance Organization, a team is described as“…people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”[i] In this definition, the common purpose helps a team develop goals, the proper person with the right talent or skill is matched with those goals, and then each member of the team becomes accountable for overall success or failure of tasks.

Becoming accountable, however, means that a team or organization is not just responsible for its success or failure, but is responsible for identifying the source of problems and correcting them through self-critique. The Army as a high performing organization uses the After Action Review (AAR) to fulfill this requirement for self-critique. It is important to understand however, that an AAR can do more than simply identify simplistic lessons learned in training or on the battlefield. It is an opportunity to develop a more cohesive team that is not just tactically, but cognitively ready to adapt in dynamic environments. To reap the benefits of the AAR process, it is the responsibility of the person conducting that AAR to ensure that all the critical members of the team are present and to explore not just what happened during an operation and why, but the thought processes leaders experienced at critical decision points.

In a tactical environment, the battalion is typically the highest level at which junior and senior leaders must effectively interact with one another to achieve battlefield success. At battalion level, the battalion commander is not unlike the coach of a sports team, with the team captains being company commanders, and new teammates being platoon leaders and platoon sergeants. They must all be able to work effectively as a team at battalion level to operate. To do so, they must be able to not only understand the battalion’s playbook (battle drills, SOPs, etc.), but also how their teammates react in a rapidly changing environment. It takes time to develop this sort of team cognitive readiness of which AARs are the most important contributor. To leave any member of the team out of this process is to the detriment of the unit’s ability to operate more effectively.

The question is are battalions ensuring that every member of the team has a chance to contribute, learn, and develop from this process? Are they often including only company commanders in AARs and leaving platoon leadership to the wayside? And if not, then are the AARs conducted often failing to explore what happened on the battlefield in the depth that allows for team cognitive readiness to develop?

Too often I have heard lieutenants in units across the Army express that battalion level AARs either do not include platoon leaders, only encourage company commanders to talk, or include too little content to actually bring about significant change in the way they operate and interact with fellow leaders. These are lost opportunities, especially in a world of sequestration where solid training exercises are dwindling.

An effective battalion AAR needs to fully include platoon leaders, explore more than just "what happened and why?", and include candid feedback from all involved. If conducted in this manner a battalion AAR will give crucial development to junior officers, build trust both up and down the chain of command (CoC), and create a more effective team by bringing the vast knowledge, experience, and most importantly thought processes of its leaders to bare.

Decentralization in Maneuver Warfare

In 1985 William Lind, a civilian with no military service but who perhaps was one of the best military historians in the Department of Defense, published The Maneuver Warfare Handbook.[ii] While the title sounds more like any vanilla military field manual, it actually became a groundbreaking work on the theory and practice of maneuver warfare. It was written by Lind as a critique of U.S. Marine Corps training and doctrine and covered everything from mission-oriented orders to proper usage of enablers.  Lind's work quickly found its way into practice (not to mention several TRADOC reading lists) and was most likely a source for much of the Army's modern doctrine. But what was the most important theme of this book was the need for junior leaders to be able to think two levels up (the platoon leader is able to think at battalion level, the company commander at brigade level, etc).

Many in the Army think the force is already doing this as most operations orders by doctrine should include the commander's intent two levels up.[iii] However, understanding the commander's intent two levels up should also mean that the platoon leader understands how the battalion commander thinks and operates on the battlefield under dynamic situations.

The old adage "no mission survives first contact with the enemy" is the reason for intent as it allows the junior leaders to carry forward with the mission despite factors shifting on the battlefield. For example, if the company commander and executive officer are killed, the platoon leader left in charge should be able to maneuver the company just as effectively because he understands how the company fits or "nests" into the battalion's scheme of maneuver. Obviously a situation such as this would increase the level of chaos within the battalions' operational environment, however there is a way to help reduce this chaos (and perhaps create chaos for the enemy). It is by making sure the platoon leader understands not just his battalion commander's intent but also his battalion commander's thought processes. Enter the OODA Loop.

William Lind was not only an avid military historian, but was also a firm believer in Colonel John Boyd's Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop or "Boyd Cycle" and its relation to warfare. In short, the OODA Loop is a decision-making process where a party "observes himself, his physical surroundings, and his enemy..." and then based off past experiences, education, cultural norms etc. creates a mental picture of the situation. From there he makes a decision, implements said decision, and then "...assuming the situation has changed due to the action taken, starts the process over.” [iv] According to Lind, "if one side in a conflict can consistently go through the Boyd Cycle faster than the other, it gains a tremendous advantage. By the time the slower side acts, the faster side is doing something different from what he [the slower party] observed," thus making the enemy's actions inappropriate and further behind in timing with each cycle.[v]

So what does all this mean? It means, as Lind describes, that "[o]nly a decentralized military can have a fast OODA Loop. If the observations must be passed up a chain of command, the orientation made, and the decision taken at a high level...then transmitted back down...the OODA Loop is going to be slow." [vi] Implicit in Lind's idea of decentralization is the ability of junior officers to understand the big picture at any given point in a battle and then act on that mental picture knowing that his decision can effect mission completion. If the Army places trust in junior leaders to operate platoons or companies within a battalion picture then it stands to reason that having the ability to understand higher-level decision making processes and apply them at a lower level in battle is crucial to defeating the enemy. This concept can also be analogous to the way a sports team operates more effectively on the playing field by developing shared mental models.

Developing Team Cognitive Readiness

There is a large amount of research on teamwork and what makes great teams effective either on the playing field or on the battlefield. One of particular interest is a study called Shared Mental Models In Expert Team Decision Making, in which Doctors Janis Canon-Bowers, Sharolyn Converse, and Eduardo Salas attempt to explain the relationship between shared mental models and team effectiveness. Some of the major findings of the work were these:

1. When the tasks a team must perform are more dynamic and require adaptability and flexibility the importance of team mental models peaks. This is because teammates must be familiar with how one another “operate[s], what they are likely to do, [and] what information they will require.” In addition it “enhances a team member’s ability to develop viable expectations for performance.”;[vii]

2. Developing similar performance expectations by understanding how each team member functions within their jobs both laterally (across peers) and vertically (within the CoC) is more important than developing identical mental models for particular situations;[viii]

3. Teams must avoid “groupthink” or the unrealistic appraisal of possible courses of action within overly cohesive groups due to desire by individuals within the group to be part of unanimity;[ix]

4. Debriefing at the end of an exercise must allow for team members not only to “interpret what was happening at critical times,” but also to understand “why certain team members behaved as they did, and to what extent expectations [during the exercise] were correct.”[x]

In addition, a work titled A Team Cognitive Readiness Framework For Small-Unit Training discusses how the foundation of “decision making in dynamic environments is the linkage between pattern recognition processes and knowledge structures.”[xi] Team Cognitive Readiness, according to the authors, requires team members to use higher level cognitive processes such as pattern recognition and decision making to make sense of lower level perceptual cues.

In order for team members to become experts in task completion in a dynamic environment, individuals in the group “must be able to perceive complex patterns not simply defined by the presence or absence of individual cues…but must also be able to assess how such cues relate to teammates’ roles and responsibilities.” The authors go even further in saying that, when training, there is a “critical need” to support “the development of shared knowledge structures integrating [perception with decision making].”[xii]

What the findings above help to explain is how a team (in this case the battalion chain of command) becomes more effective by developing a shared mental model that can be applied in a dynamic environment such as battle. For the battalion team to develop a shared mental model, those at the bottom of the chain of command must be able to understand how other teammates can or will react as a situation changes whether they are peers or superiors. If platoon leaders can better understand how those above and beside them think, then not only will it help develop their tactical and technical skill, but it will also better inform them as to actions they themselves can take in relation to their teammates.

The goal, should be to reach a level of team cognitive readiness in which similar performance expectations for certain teammates exist along with a full understanding of other teammates’ responsibilities and roles as a battle unfolds. It is only by this common understanding that a shared mental model can develop and the level of effectiveness seen on the playing field can be brought to the battlefield as well.

A More Effective Battalion AAR

What does an AAR that helps better develop a shared mental model look like? Well for starters, all leaders of the battalion must participate in the “debriefing” sessions (AARs) as mentioned in the Cannon-Brown-Salas paper. This should include everyone from the battalion commander to platoon leaders (and platoon sergeants if possible). This will help to ensure that an operation, whether real or simulated, is viewed from all levels and gives each leader an inside look at the thought processes of other teammates regardless of rank or proficiency.

To make the content of AARs more effective to building upon team mental models, one need look no further than Lind. In The Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Lind says that an effective AAR sets frankness as a ground rule for critiquing.[xiii] In fact Lind even suggests that a commanding officer (this author recommends a company commander) open with a “trenchant self-critique of his own actions and encourage others to do the same.”[xiv] This immediately sets the tone that frankness is welcomed, and talking about one’s own mistakes in front of other members of the group, especially superiors, encourages junior leaders to self-critique as well (something that can be a major roadblock to a quality AAR).

Next, Lind suggests looking at key points in the battle and not just explaining what happened, but go inside the mind of those who were making critical decisions at those points. Questions like, “What options did you have here?”, “What other options did you have that you failed to see?”, “How quickly were you able to see, decide, act, and why?”, “why did you do what you did?”, and “Was your reasoning process sound, and if not, why not?” are just a few examples of ways to bring thought processes to bare for others.[xv] Encouraging leaders including platoon leadership to question the thought processes of their superiors is also critical not only to building the battalion’s mental model, but to avoiding groupthink.

Perhaps the most important piece of all this is ensuring that decisions made during an operation are not addressed during an AAR as necessarily right or wrong. Yes, certain decisions are going to be better than others, but it shouldn’t simply be said that a decision was right or wrong. A decision needs to be explored as to why it was made and in what manner. For example:

A commander in an AAR says the following:

“At this point, I maneuvered 3rd platoon to Charlie Company’s left flank and engaged the enemy,”

This statement has less utility to team cognitive readiness development as:

“I saw the enemy maneuvering to Charlie Company’s left flank where there were several destroyed vehicles. I couldn’t communicate with their commander and assumed him dead. I decided to accept risk and maneuver 3rd platoon out of their battle positions and to Charlie’s left flank. I wanted to defend against the attack in order to support the battalion commander’s main effort and ultimately his intent.”

In the second example the commander’s thought process is laid out in full. Platoon leaders have a chance to hear this explanation and learn from their commanders or even question them as to other options they may have had available. In addition, the battalion commander can weigh-in with his thoughts and how he perceived the situation at the time. The more perceptions of the situation brought forth, the better. This is going to yield team cognitive readiness as well as a more effective fighting force overall.           

Perhaps the U.S. Army’s greatest attribute can be found in its leadership. This institution has spent countless billions of dollars to create its current Officer and NCO Corps which are the most professional and well-educated in their respective histories. But in order to help develop and prepare the most junior leaders in the force to operate on the battlefield and for company and eventually battalion leadership roles, they must be able to think on those levels. This requires more than simply discussing the commander’s intent two levels up during an operations order.  They must be able to visualize the battlefield, the terrain, and perceptual cues the way their superiors do, and understand how to think like a company or battalion leader. Hearing intent is one thing; understanding how the person giving the intent operates is even more important.

The onus therefore is placed on senior leadership to ensure that platoon leaders are included in crucial discussions during battalion AARs. Their input, whether it is viewed as right or wrong, should be sought and questioned by their superiors as well as peers. The goal is not to uncover major mistakes during an operation, or ridicule the “greenhorn”, but to shed light as to how each member of the team viewed a situation and reacted as they did. This will bring the leaders of the battalion to a better understanding of one another and ultimately to build a greater trust amongst them.

ADP 6-0 Mission Command says it best:

“Creating shared understanding of the issues, concerns, and abilities of commanders, subordinates, and unified action partners takes an investment of time and effort. Successful commanders talk with Soldiers, subordinate leaders, and unified action partners. Through collaboration and dialogue, participants share information and perspectives, question assumptions, and exchange ideas to help create and maintain a shared understanding and purpose.”[xvi]

Building cohesive teams with a shared understanding amongst their membership is a basic tenant of Mission Command, and with this approach to the battalion AAR, commanders as well as subordinates can better embrace it when it matters most.

End Notes

[i] Katzenbach, Jon R. and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom Of Teams: Creating The High-Performance Organization (Massachusetts: McKinsey & Company Inc., 1993), 45.

[ii] Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art Of War (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2002), Kindle Edition, 5348.

[iii] Ranger Training Brigade, SH 21-76, Ranger Handbook, Fort Benning, GA, February 2011, 2-11.

[iv] Lind, William, The Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), Kindle Edition, 172-177.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, 192.

[vii] Janis A. Cannon-Bowers, Eduardo Salas, and Sharolyn Converse “Shared Mental Models In Expert Team Decision Making,” in Individual and Group Decision Making: Current Issues, ed. N. John Castellan (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. Publishers , 1993), 234.

[viii] Ibid, 235.

[ix] Ibid, 236.

[x] Ibid, 240.

[xi] Stephen M. Fiore, Karol G. Ross, and Florian Jentsch, “A Team Cognitive Readiness Framework For Small-Unit Training,” in Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making, Vol. 6, No. 3, (2012), 356.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Lind, 1090.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid, 1090-1094.

[xvi] Department of the Army, ADP 6-0, Mission Command, Washington D.C., May 2012, 3.


About the Author(s)

1LT Jimmy Byrn is a Mortar Platoon Leader in HHC, 2-7 IN BN and is deployed to Eastern Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. He has previously served as a Tank Platoon Leader in C. Co., 2-7 IN BN. He graduated from the United States Military Academy with a Bachelors of Science in Military History. His military education includes Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course, the Army Reconnaissance Course, Infantry Mortar Leader Course, Airborne School, Ranger Training Assessment Course, and Ranger School. Facebook: Jimmy Byrn Twitter:@JimmyByrn