Military attitudes toward decision-making
September 19, 2011 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How do military attitudes about decision-making differ from civilian ones?

For example, I have sometimes seen military people portrayed in fiction as valuing speed of decision-making much more highly than civilians do, valuing it even over correctness, believing that it is better to do something flawed now than something better later. Is this accurate? Does it depend — on the type of decision, on whether it's in combat, on the position of the decider, on which service we're talking about? Are the lines drawn differently between rash, bold, prudent, timid? Are there standard ideas within military culture on this question — that is, do military people routinely characterize the difference between civilian and military decision-making in specific ways (leaving aside the question of whether those characterizations are accurate)? Anything else I'm neglecting to ask about?

I am particularly interested in anecdotes which shed light on attitudes.
posted by stebulus to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
In the military, great value is placed on people who make the right decisions quickly.

Possessing only one ability is not good. The rigid command system is in place to keep people who can't do both from getting killed by putting them under the command of a superior soldier, and training is designed to make as many good decisions as possible habitual in order to let the mind focus on the most difficult, unfamiliar problems at hand.

Since I'm from the US I recommend to you the USMC's publicly available book, Warfighting. It distills wisdom from great tactical thinkers over history (Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, etc.) and explains specific US Military and USMC decision-making doctrine.
posted by michaelh at 8:37 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the main rationales behind the 'quick decision' model is the OODA loop. The OODA loop is a model that explains the steps involved in making in a decision (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). The idea is that during combat both you and the enemy are continuously involved in this process, and generally the commander who can more quickly get through it is the one who dictates what happens during the engagement. So having waiting for a perfect decision to occur to you is counterproductive because by that time, the other person could be two or three steps ahead of you-- better to make more or less good decisions that allow you to dictate future action.

This was what I was taught in the Marines, anyway. Other services may have different acronyms for the same thing.

Non-combat planning can take a pretty long time in the military, and is very bureaucratic and inefficient pretty much all the time. Many PowerPoints are involved.
posted by _cave at 9:08 AM on September 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

Here's a blog post that isn't about military decision making per se but, rather about emergency response decision making (written shortly after the Katrina debacle). The author is former military and his attitude toward the system definitely suggests that he believes this is how you ought to run things that matter.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:39 AM on September 19, 2011

The OODA loop is certainly the in-vogue model for combat-based decision making. I've even heard it used in reference to politics (responding before the next media cycle, etc).

I think one of the fundamental aspects of the military is that it is tuned to make *A* decision. There is no decision by consensus - the structure is set up to drive decisions to a single responsible individual. So no waffling around, and no 'reverse' or 'upward' delegation. Everything is oriented to the mission - whether that is getting Osama, or training a new group of recruits. Does this support the mission? Yes - we do it.

And in fact, decisions are made by a *person* in a *role*. In a military VTC (video teleconference), you won't see nametags that say "Colonel Fred Smith", you will see "HEAD OF FLIGHT OPS" because tomorrow that role might be some other person. Imagine a corporate meeting with FINANCE, HR, MARKETING, not Sally, Bob, Joe.
posted by scolbath at 10:28 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites] much absent-minded typing on that post, but you get that idea.
posted by _cave at 10:39 AM on September 19, 2011

I remember posted on in a bunch of different places at Quantico a Patton quote saying something to the effect of "A good plan, executed violently NOW is better than a perfect plan three weeks from now".

Seconding the comments about OODA and making decisions - from observation, I think there's a degree of small-unit leadership emphasis that is usually harder to find in the civilian world. My boss now told me "Well, I'm going to give you all the work you can handle, and if you can... I'll give you more. When you fail, I'll know what you can do." (which, while a flippant comment that shouldn't be analyzed too hard, was a good representation of the degree of "well, let's see what you can do" that's fostered)

There's a great line in the beginning of Making the Corps (a well written book which follows Marine Corps recruits through boot) where the reporter realizes that he's in the middle-of-nowhere in Somalia, and to paraphrase, "just put my life in the hands of the 22 year old Corporal leading our patrol. ... at the office back home, I wouldn't let the 22 year old lead the way to the copy machine" (at the same time, there's an almost-obscene amount of micromanagement inherent in the military lifestyle... yeah, it's contradictory. I'm sure someone else can better explain it)

Something else I've noticed - one of the most observable qualities of an effective military leader (billet, not necessarily rank) is their comfort level with making decisions with the best-information-available. The ones who made careers out of it realized that more-often-than-not, they made good choices (practice makes perfect, I guess).

... of course it helps that the ones that made bad choices didn't make careers. (Always hated but was somewhat amused by the Navy nightmare - - CO's in his rack, hears a knock, "Excuse me sir, but PO Doughnuts just ran the ship aground (ending your career)..."
posted by Seeba at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2011

There's much more of an emphasis on the suffering of the individual for the sake of the success of the group or whole.

Mission accomplishment is above personal comfort/well-being as far as priorities go, and while that's probably the case in some business environments, it's not a philosophy (I feel) most civilians subscribe to.
posted by Fister Roboto at 11:10 AM on September 19, 2011

German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” So, you know, plan all you want but it can all go out the window in a second -- and that's when individual- and unit training will show through.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:26 PM on September 19, 2011

The Army has all kinds of formal tools and flowchart-type systems for helping to make decisions.

At the Company and Battalion level, it's called TLP, Troop Leading Procedures. Brigade and higher use a more extended version called MDMP, Military Decision Making Process.

I used to teach MDMP. I would tell students it's a process designed to be used when you are tired, scared and being shot at, to ensure you don't forget anything.

When it's done right, it really helps reveal salient, possibly overlooked features in the sea of information, and builds a clear shared understanding of the goal at hand and the method of achieving that goal.

Where it can fall down is when people use it dogmatically to crank out a decision, and then think their job is done.

We would give our student teams a simple problem: get a convoy from Point A to Point B. Given a map, some minor intelligence and the usual resources, they would come up with a credible plan. Then I would point to the map and ask, "What happens if you get hit here?"

The system for building the plan didn't contain what to do when the plan goes out the window. That, I would tell them, is where leadership comes in. You as a leader have to plan for those possibilities.

That's where the other part of military decision making comes in, and this is something I use regularly in my life: It's great for creating decision points. IF/THEN statements. IF we get hit before this intersection, THEN we turn around. IF we reach this road, THEN we've gone too far.

The goal of all this is to reduce the workload on the combatant commander; if he and his team have done their jobs right, he (or she) should have a much smaller set of decisions that need to be made. That makes it much easier to make the right decision. I guess that's what the books and movies miss: Making the right decision means doing a lot of planning ahead of time. In the movies somebody tells John Wayne "The Germans are coming up the draw!" "Quick," John Wayne says, "Put the machine guns on the other side of the hill and blast 'em!"
What they don't see is John Wayne and his staff analyzed the terrain before they even got there and saw two or three potential routes for the German counterattack, and had a plan for each eventuality and a trigger point, a critical piece of information that would tell them which route the Germans were going to take.

Also, the higher you go, the farther out the staff is looking. At Corps level, they're planning the fight two days out.

None of this is new, by the way. In The Gallic Wars, Caesar mentions another General who decides to abandon one camp under siege and make his way to another. His legion is ambushed, and running back and forth to cope with the the attack he is killed. He was unable to make a decision, Caesar wrote, "As often happens to those who fail to plan" before conducting operations like that.
posted by atchafalaya at 12:47 PM on September 19, 2011

The thing that amazed me was the lack of authority delegation in the civilian world. In the military you will be told if can or can not do something. I finally realized that since there was no delegated authority that I didn't have to wait for permission to do anything. Outside the forces it is much more of a who will stop me and less of a who authorized this.

Also Consensus building to decide on a plan just baffles me.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 2:45 PM on September 19, 2011

In this talk, Mary Poppendieck claims that US military "command and control" can be more consensus based than dictatorial, depending on the situation (at 1:01:42):

She cites:
Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces
Field Manual No. 6-0
Department of the Army
Washington, DC, 11August 2003

posted by at at 4:14 PM on September 20, 2011

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