A better way to talk about military planning – Onebrief

By the time you’re a Lieutenant Colonel, you’ve spent at least three years of your life planning. To an outside observer, it’s not obvious why.

A big part of my job at Onebrief is explaining military planning to a skeptical tech world. For folks used to agile development, detailed planning at the Joint Task Force or Combatant Command seems like a waste.

A “jobs to be done” framework helps me explain planning to a newcomer. For those with more experience, it changes our field from a rarefied art to a few simple jobs. Jobs which, with the right technology, processes, and training, could be more effective than they’ve ever been.

Military planning at the Joint Task Force and above

  1. To create options for a decision-maker
  2. To negotiate
  3. To comply with requirements
  4. To outsource mental work
  5. To find the truth about our environment

A planning team creates executable options. When folks call a plans shop “the engine room,” this is what they mean.

An option is something you can do — like disband the Iraqi military, evacuate Saigon, or establish THAAD in Soseong-ri. Commanders with good options can shape the situation in their favor.

To create options, we must make them understood in enough detail to be executed. Speed counts, because most options only work inside a time window. A common standard is feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable, and complete.

Creating options usually needs physical movement. Most planning efforts create a flurry of real-world activities, like prepositioning supplies, moving forces, committing funds, and coordinating with other organizations. This is one reason we plan so far in advance — each of these takes time.

What can we learn from imagining planning as an option factory? It means planning is like other creative team productions. Part creative, part technical, part mundane. It means we can learn from design teams like Pixar and SpaceX.

Coalitions are like families. There are happy families and unhappy ones, and both spend their days in close quarters.

Each coalition partner, staff section, agency, and command has its own interests. The plan massively affects their interests — whose assumes more risk; who gets resources; who gets broad authorities; and so on.

If this were true — if planning were a negotiation — we would expect to see effects like these:

  • Planning would grind to a halt when a stakeholder doesn’t have anyone present with the power to make decisions.
  • The best planners would deeply understand other stakeholders.
  • Units would guard their information — and carefully control what they share.

I care about seeing planning as a negotiation, because it explains our trouble with information sharing.

When you plan, you have to comply with standards. Compliance reduces the risk that you’ll create an awful plan. It costs the commander less effort to read a common format. And it makes you interoperable — from NATO to INDOPACOM, things are done in more or less the same way.

You’re probably expected to:

  • Format slides to your organization’s standard
  • Include the subparagraphs of an OPORD/OPLAN
  • Follow a process, like Joint Planning Process, NATO OPP, Australian JMAP, etc.

Compliance has a cost. Each requirement takes effort. Sometimes, compliance becomes the main goal, when units prioritize staff process ahead of real-world effects.

This burden isn’t inevitable. In the 90s, preparing your taxes was much harder than it is today. TurboTax transformed the industry by automating the mundane parts of tax preparation. The right software could do the same for planning.

McKinsey & Co is a well-known consulting firm. Government agencies, foreign governments, and Fortune 100 companies pay McKinsey to support their decisions.

As companies outsource mental work to McKinsey, commanders outsource it to the J3/5/7. Planners are internal consultants. This predicts the traits we expect in planners: discreet (they don’t gossip in the DFAC), well-spoken workaholics.

We don’t just outsource our thinking to other people. We also outsource it in time. We plan before a crisis, so we can make good decisions during execution. That’s why Eisenhower said, “Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.”

The outsourcing model shows us two dangers:

First, when one person plans, everyone else gets to avoid thinking. When the situation changes, they won’t be able to adapt. This failure mode is called “fighting the plan.”

Second, outsourcing isn’t free. A thousand-man staff is a massive burden. If a smaller team could do the same work, it would be transformative.

Imagine your theater was a giant chessboard, but no one knew the rules.

Each move would offer a data point — a clue to how the world works. More data lets you test theories. Knowing the rules, or even just a few more rules, is a huge advantage. Imagine if you could move your knights, but your adversary didn’t know how.

Rules can be specific to the time and place. Some rules from Vietnam apply to Iraq, but others are new. Things go badly when it takes too long to figure them out.

If planning were truly an investigation, then new evidence would sometimes overturn old theories. We’d want a feedback loop, in which theories and evidence are broadly shared with the community.

If you haven’t seen General Goldfein’s speech on multi-domain operations, I highly recommend it. Start at 38:45.

Imagine the near-frictionless planning needed to make his story a reality. Tactical echelons could move so quickly, because higher levels never slowed them down. We need to get faster.

Onebrief is the software platform for agile military planning. We’re a startup based in San Francisco, backed by the Air Force SBIR program and by Alchemist Accelerator.

Our collaborative, visual platform is built for Operational Planning Teams at the JTF level and above. If you have a stake in this process in the U.S. or allied militaries, contact me to schedule a demo:

For those at the Brigade/Wing level and below, I’m still happy to book a demo, but it’ll be some time before our product meets your needs. For now, we’re focused on the JTF and above.

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