Making good judgments in the face of risk is hard. It involves a complex web of decisions, actions and counteractions that often spiral well beyond the scope of the original task. The higher the stakes, the tougher risk management becomes.
The same is true of combat — which is exactly why the military insists that its combat leaders train and study and review and practice, over and over again, in ever-more complex scenarios, so that they are as ready as possible to make decisions based on real risk.
Take the example of a Task Force, several hundred soldiers equipped with tanks and other equipment — charged with breaching the defenses an area of interest and clear debris.
An operations officer, an experienced tactician and planner, proposed to focus on two breach points. This was a tactically and doctrinally sound approach, yet the plan was changed to focus on a single point. Why?
Four reasons: First, our task force, assembled in the past 72 hours from unfamiliar units, would be working in close proximity, at night, with another organization from a sister service with whom we had never fought. The risk of losing our own in this complex environment was very, very high; a simpler plan was safer.
Second, we knew the terrain and enemy positions solely from satellite imagery, often weeks old. None of us had actually seen the ground or the places we intended to force our way through.
Third, while some leaders had spent years at Regiment Training for high-intensity combat, the same was not true of many subordinate leaders. Most of them had experienced some combat in the area we were tasked with securing, but had generally spent their recent years in a lower grade compared to full-out combat. Fewer still had participated in a company-level Combined Arms Live Fire, a maneuver exercise featuring live ammunition of multiple types.
And fourth, it was uncertain our unit’s leaders, inexperienced in this type of operation, would be unable to capitalize on a successful breach and avoid a long and costly fight.
Commanders decisions weren’t based on a whim or their gut. They were made based on best judgment backed by the confidence that comes from learning why I “was defeated” on lots of mock simulated practice battlefields.
A minefield got me the first time I led a company toward a mock breach point at the Combat Maneuver Training Center Later that week, I got beat again—in an artillery barrage that caught me behind a mud-mired vehicle in the breach lane.
A few days later, I was “targeted” again by a well-camouflaged tank that my lead unit rolled past, unawares.
Years later I watched my tactically perfect plans unravel as small units got lost and key equipment broke. In subsequent rotations at the training center I got hit by friendly fire: an Apache helicopter that misidentified my vehicle, an unmarked friendly minefield that we drove into.
As the years passed, I got beat again and again and again in payment for my personal mistakes, poor planning assumptions, and for things out of my control.
Each of these training “defeats” was immediately followed by exhaustive after-action review sessions designed to highlight the events that led to our failures and help us learn the complex calculus that would enable us to accept and mitigate risk on real battlefields.
All this allowed me to recognize, as I weighed options for the current assault, that halving the number of breach points created some new risks — principally, that a failure at our single point of attack would leave the Marines to our right alone and unprotected. But my training also helped me understand how to mitigate this and other risks.
With less than 72 hours to prepare for the attack, we chose to keep the plan simple and focus our time on rehearsing it at every level. We built a massive mock-up of the battle theatre and walked everyone, down to the most junior leader, through their part of the first 24 hours of the attack.
We did this to ensure that everyone knew who was to their left, right, front, and rear; that they understood where they were moving to; and that they knew the control measures that would keep us from hitting our own people.
Based on these rehearsals, we made adjustments. The night before the attack, we staged a full-up rehearsal, and made more adjustments. We timed our movement to the breach point and rehearsed the timing of our artillery fires. We surveyed the ground between our force and the defense; the commander walked up, then crawled further, to see it first-hand.
Based on what the company commander leading the breach force learned from his recon, we shifted the breach point 200 meters to take a cleaner, more protected approach.
Then came the action, and we breached the complex minefields guarding the approach into and entered the battle zone on schedule.
Things didn't go as well for the Marine task force to our right flank. “For five hours, 1/3 Marines attempted to create a lane into the , onto the conflict stage, only to be thwarted by the insurgents’ defensive positions and the railroad track.”
“The 1-3 Marines were supposed to blow a path across train tracks, but they were well built and didn’t break the first time. Then an armored bulldozer got stuck in the breach…With no radio and poor night-vision goggles, the backup bulldozer couldn’t find the breach…The delay meant that several vehicles came together near the breach point. Insurgents took advantage, launching three mortars, wounding four as they struck two tanks and an armored troop carrier.”
For all our planning, this was a risk we had not anticipated or planned for. Unprotected on our right flank, alone in a city of enemies, our Task Force fought on its own for hours. There were losses.
A few days later, we were faced with an even tougher decision. Recognizing an opportunity to bring a quick end to the fight, we coordinated a plan to finish clearing our portion of the battlespace and that of the Marine unit to our right.
But as we began to move units into position the next morning, the company commander of our lead element got hit. The loss of a leader is tough for any unit to handle, but most have an executive officer, a “second in charge,” ready to step in and assume command. In our case, the unit’s had been hit the day before. Normally, the loss of two of the three senior leaders in a small unit would cause you to delay the attack or replace the unit. Unfortunately, we had no replacement available.
Delaying the attack, which the Marine leaders offered as an option, would have enabled a fanatical and deeply entrenched enemy to reorganize, rest up, and burrow more deeply into the scene. Mitigating our own risk, therefore, would increase the risk to other units. Ultimately, we decided to press on with the attack. What ensued was a long, difficult night, but when the sun came up the next morning there was no fight left in the city, and we didn’t lose anyone else.
Many battlefield leaders such as these have little practical experience with business-based risk, but quickly found that my experience on mock, simulated battlefields gave me — and the people I trained — an edge.
Several things stood out. First, the skill that enables an individual to judge risk in complex situations is borne of repetitions of a challenge in varying conditions. Years of conditioning and multiple training exercises at Combat Training Centers gave me the experience to make the right decisions
The many rehearsals we executed before the attack ensured that my subordinate leaders understood my intent and could rise above the risk. We’ve adopted that strategy as creating accelerators at key installations that are now centers for training another generation of leaders in industry and DoD.
Second, no individual can properly understand all the risks in a complex situation. The chance of success is increased when a diverse group of leaders with different backgrounds work in concert with one another. Professional silos are the opposite of successful risk management.
Third, leaders who fail to find a way ahead despite risks don’t solve problems; they simply transfer the risk elsewhere. Often, it is transferred to lower-level leaders who lack the practice, training, experience, and resources to handle the risk — or even recognize it.
In the Pentagon, our acquisition and contracting rules and procedures seek, above all else, to reduce operational losses. But this has cost us countless opportunities to build the best possible combat force. In today’s fast-moving era, the ability to spot and seize on an opportunity may determine the success or failure of a company — or a military.
Pentagon Leaders must move past empty calls for more risk, past efforts to exactly copy industry best practices for innovation, and past a focus on technology scouting and venture capital.
These will not grow an acquisition force capable of taking the kind of risks that reduce the risks on the battlefield. Instead, we must apply what the military has long known about developing its leaders to use Mission Command Decision Making Models to issue orders.
Mission command: how to empower troops to act fast in a crisis
The ability of commanders to respond almost instantaneously to a crisis or potential crisis affects whether the event is manageable or escalates into something more serious.
Investigating how a mission command approach can help organizations create a crisis management system that is fit for the digital era where swift decision-making by effectively empowered people is vital.
What is mission command?
Mission command. In its military context it is a decentralised style of command that relies on initiative, the acceptance of responsibility and mutual trust. This approach empowers employees to use initiative and promotes freedom and speed of action through the establishment of clear intent and constraints e.g resources by senior managers or commanders.
Mission command has one guiding principle – the absolute responsibility to act and achieve the superior’s intent. It also has five further principles:
Unity of effort: Unity of effort stems from the setting of a clear intent, the use of common language, terminology and tactics, a high standard of collective training and the designation of priorities and a main effort for the mission or task.
Freedom of action: Troops must be able to exercise freedom of action within specified and implied constraints to act as they see fit to ensure the achievement of the superior’s intent without fear of repercussion.
Trust: Trust is a prerequisite at all levels. Trust improves speed of decision making and therefore improves the tempo of the operation. Trust must be earned not demanded, however the default must be for all levels of the organization to trust both their superiors and subordinates. In particular superiors must trust their employees to sensibly interpret their intent and persevere to achieve it.
Mutual understanding: Mutual understanding is developed over time through common doctrine and concepts.
Timely and effective decision making: Successful command requires timely and effective decision making at all levels. Despite the increasing availability and speed of information it remains essential for commanders to make decisions on the basis of incomplete and imperfect understanding. This can seem risky, and good judgement is required to decide when is the right time to act or not to act.
How can a mission command approach improve an organization’s crisis management capability?
There is a model in crisis management called ‘the golden hour’ which states that your response within the first hour of the crisis affects whether the event is manageable or escalates into something more serious.
But in the modern era of digitally connected operations, the reality is that the golden hour has been compressed into the golden few minutes, during which an organization’s initial response to a potential crisis affects whether the event is manageable or escalates into something more serious.
Organizations serious about their crisis preparedness have recognised this and are now searching for a means to enable this rapid, almost instantaneous strategic crisis response to happen. The application of a mission command approach in an organization’s crisis management system can help it achieve just that.
Most crises are dynamic, rapidly evolving and unpredictable and have extraordinary strategic implications. A mission command system allows troops to rapidly respond to a changing situation and seize opportunities by using their initiative, experience and ability to ensure that the commanders intent and the organization’s response priorities are met. It also facilitates a rapid initial response to a crisis, prior to the activation through traditional means of the crisis management team(s) across the organization.
How can the key principles of mission command be applied to an organization’s crisis management system?
When an organization is experiencing a crisis its crisis management system needs to facilitate the creation of unity of effort within the response. It should establish the intent of senior officers this can be demonstrated through the documentation of:
Response priorities where it is common for organizations to use 1. People, 2. Environment, 3. Assets, 4. Reputation as their response priorities
Response approach – In its simplest form, an approach of prudent over reaction to a crisis or potential crisis empowers troops to act swiftly and decisively.
Management principles – these provide a guideline of how the organization will develop and deliver its response.
Definition of a crisis – A clear and concise definition of what constitutes a crisis
If Troops have this guiding methodology which explains the commanders intent it empowers them to act, which supports freedom of action. The successful implementation of a crisis response requires investment from senior officers in a sustained competency development programme.
Developing troop competency in crisis response is essential, it develops confidence in the organization’s response system and their own capability to manage a crisis. A trained crisis management team has a far better chance of successfully managing a crisis than an untrained one, it will respond faster and work more efficiently as the response progresses. This in turn develops unity of effort across the response system and establishes a template for mutual understanding and trust to be developed across the organization.
Exercises also provide the basis for development of the crisis management system through a process of continuous improvement. Trust is gained in the crisis management system if responders know that their feedback, and any learnings identified in post exercise reports, are reviewed and any improvements are implemented.
Successful crisis response requires timely and effective decision making. By creating a crisis management system that adheres to a mission command philosophy, organizations can greatly improve the speed at which they respond to a crisis. This is achieved through unity of effort in the crisis response, mutual understanding and trust held by all members of the response structure, trust in the crisis management process and policy, and the freedom of action for troops to act using their best judgement and expertise within defined constraints, in line with the intent of commanders.
We have used best practices in crisis and incident management to be used as a benchmark to review how mission command approaches relate to, and can help organizations become better prepared to deal, with a crisis in the modern digital era.
It is clear that although mission command’s terminology is different, it is complimentary to the preparedness guidance presented in best practice. By using the guiding principle of mission command which is the absolute responsibility to act and achieve the superior’s intent, and the five key principles; unity of effort, freedom of action, trust, mutual understanding and timely and effective decision-making.
Organization equipped with a solid decision making model can create a crisis management system that aligns with best practices and allows it to respond quickly and effectively through the empowerment of troops to make swift decisions, which have the potential to minimise the impact of the crisis during the critical first few minutes. This increases organizational resilience.
Commanders seek to initiate combat on the most favorable terms. Doing so allows the massing of effects against selected enemy units in vulnerable locations. Maintaining the initiative allows a commander to shift the decisive operation to make good decisions so opportunities can be exploited as they arise. Commanders seize, retain, and exploit the initiative by--
- Defining types of operations, forms of maneuver, and tactical mission tasks.
- Organization tasks of available forces and allocation of resources.
- Arrangement and choice of control measures impact operational tempo
- Gaining a position of relative advantage-- physical/temporal by rapid maneuver
- Employing firepower to destroy critical enemy capabilities and systems.
- Conducting information operations to isolate and degrade enemy decision-making abilities.
- Denying enemy forces what they require for success, example terrain/airspace
- Sustaining and protecting subordinate forces before, during, and after battles.
- Planning beyond the initial operation and anticipating its branches or sequels.
- Consolidating gains to defeat all forms of enemy resistance.