Mission Planning in Austere Situations

A Lousy Briefing

We’ve just seen another example of mission planners whose noses were in computers and not where they needed to be, i.e. out bird-dogging logistics and coordinations for the mission.

They prepared the whole mission — intel brief, warning order, operations order, annexes, and briefback — in Microsoft PowerPoint. The slides were prepared in classic Army fashion: dense, text-rich and jargon-saturated, with the text shrunken ever smaller as the Good Idea Fairy inspired team members, staff members, commanders and kibitzers to cram more mung into the slide.

The briefing that resulted from this sucked. We mean really sucked. Like, the intakes to the turbines at the Glen Canyon Dam, sucked. It dried your eyeballs faster than instant depressurization in deep interstellar space. Or it seemed that way. We were waiting for the CO to pull the trigger that various SF legends would have done: “You just lost power. Brief  without the computers.” D’oh!

A Real World Example of Computer Failure

(We actually saw that happen real-world at K2 in Uzbekistan. The power to the FOB TOC cut out… and when the computers came up, the TOC staff realized in horror that, since these machines hadn’t been turned off or rebooted in months, nobody knew any of the passwords. Some were in a tech’s head, a few more in his notebook, and for a few more, a call to another tech who’d rotated back Stateside was required. So yeah, it can happen to you and when it does, you will be looking mighty stupid).  By the way, the tech with the passwords in his notebook saved our bacon that day, but he was violating more Army regulations than Bradley Manning.

A computer is a tool, but you need it less than you think — even today. If you understand the basics of mission planning, you can do it with the basics of tools — 3 x 5″ cards, butcher block paper, a sand table.

Issues of Communications with PowerPoint

PowerPoint is particularly insidious. Edward Tufte has been fighting a lonely rearguard action against what he calls the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint for over a decade.  He has a few allies who do things like port the Gettysburg Address over to .ppt.

The military, unfortunately, loves PowerPoint and has its own PowerPoint style, which is all about putting every detail on the slide to cover sme staff weenie’s ass, and not at all about communication, at which this style of use is utterly dreadful.

If you have to use PowerPoint, present like you would if you were a startup, coming to venture capitalists for money.  Guy Kawasaki (who’s been on both sides of the VC presentation) recommends a 10-20-30 rule. (1) Maximum of 10 slides. (2) Budget no more than 20 minitues of an allotted hour for presentation — maximizes time for Q&A, and covers your hiney in case you get an obstreperous briefee or your time slot is crunched by external schedule drivers. (3) No smaller than 30-point type. The slide holds ideas, not the whole thing.

Never, ever, give them a slide deck, with or without notes, to read before your presentation. They will read that and ignore what you say.

Five Rules for an Effective Mission Brief

  • Use an operations order format. Every officer in a US or allied military knows it to some degree.
  • Every team member must know the mission in detail, especially infil plans, actions on emergencies (it’s OK, even superior, to say “according to Team SOP” but everybody had best be drilled in team SOP). and actions on the objective.
  • Every key event must be rehearsed, including the briefing.
  • Charts illustrate key points. A sand table for key actions (especially on OBJ) is a plus.
  • 3×5″ cards are used as aides-memoires and as flash cards

Finally, expect questions. The CO’s questions are not an interruption of your brief, they are a key component.

A question that has a variable answer is: how much dog and pony show “flash” to put on?  That depends on the recipient of the briefing. Some people love eye candy, others love austerity, and you’re going to wind up tailoring your style to what the briefee wants, unless you are extremely solid and confident in your own style and approach. If you’re the Alpha Wolf and present like an Alpha Wolf, you can get away with almost anything.

If you didn’t get away with it: you’re not the alpha wolf.

3 thoughts on “Mission Planning in Austere Situations

  1. Justaclerk

    Hammer meet nail. I just got finished viewing a narrated Articulate PowerPoint that made no frigging sense whatsoever and had to tell the author that his cut and paste job for this ‘marketing demo’ would cause potential customers to scratch their eyeballs out and search for the nearest bottle of bleach.

    He of course defended his use of this monstrosity. I guess some people don’t like to make money.

  2. Badger

    The post was timely & relevant. Where’s the youtube version of the Fuehrer’s CONOP rant when ya need it? :)

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