Creativity under fire

An officer responds to a call reporting an active threat (active shooter) who is killing innocent people inside an office building. When the officer arrives, he is alone. Backup is at least ten minutes away and people are getting killed inside the building.

The officer makes the courageous decision to enter the building and attempt to eliminate the threat.

How would you do it? On pages 72 and following, the authors of Outcomes Based Learning describe an 8-step technique you could use. As you read through it, you’ll notice that it requires a fair amount of skill with your weapon and the ability to keep your focus in a time-critical crisis situation, not to mention a lot of courage. How would you teach officers to do it?

The way this topic might be taught is to make eight slides illustrating the actions at each step (just copy the illustrations from the book). You stand at the front and deliver a lecture. The students take notes and then take a written test, usually true-false or multiple choice to make grading easier. Those who achieve the required minimum score are certified.

The authors then conclude:

The approach outlined above is one of the most ineffective education methods in history.

They also note that it is undoubtedly the most widely used.

At best, you’ve taught people how to take a test, and since you’ll be rated on how many pass, you’ve probably taught the test. But what would happen in real life? Nowhere in all this have you trained officers to deal with situations that don’t follow the eight steps or prepared them to handle fear, smoke, screams, and bullets coming their way. In other words, how to actually clear a room.

Instead of teaching the process, the eight-step technique in this case, you might consider an alternative: Teach the outcome. What is it that you want to students to be able to do and under what circumstances, and prepare them to do that. As the authors put it:

True mastery of a skill or tactical technique is not just being able to execute the steps quickly and flawlessly in a neutral environment, but rather the ability to execute techniques under stress while reacting to unexpected variables and adjusting the techniques as needed in real-time to meet the demands of the specific situation.

The human brain actually has an internal mechanism that automatically prunes, eliminates knowledge or memory that the subconscious mind determines is not useful. … This is the reason why people often forget most if not all the knowledge they gain in high school and college.

This is confirmed by research — Prof. Ellen Langer of Harvard, for example, went into how we lose and recover memories in her book Counterclockwise. But my favorite explanation of this phenomenon was presented several years ago by Father Guido Sarducci: The Five Minute University. “In five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of the school.”

This book will give you ideas on how to construct training programs that produce real world outcomes in real world situations and that students will remember when they need them. There is almost no limit to what these outcomes could be. They offer a few suggestions:

Attribute 1: Willingness to Question Authority
Attribute 2: Aggressiveness and Boldness
Attribute 3: Judgment and Responsibility
Attribute 4: Moral Courage
Attribute 5: Adaptability
Attribute 7: Situational Awareness
Attribute 8: Confidence
Attribute 9: Critical Thinking Skills
Attribute 10: Problem-Solving Skills (“That being said, it is also important not to fall into the “there is no wrong answer” trap. When it comes to most problem-solving challenges as we have already said there is never a single right answer but there are indeed always wrong answers.”)
Attribute 11: Initiative

Somewhere in this list, there are attributes that affect your organization, whether you are a military unit, a sports team, a business team, or an educational institution. And it won’t be that difficult to get started. You won’t need to master volumes of arcane theory in order to derive a lot of benefit: “In fact, you can most likely continue training in all of the same areas and even conduct many of the same types of training events. OBL will simply add a valuable element to the equation that will change the way you approach training and think about training.” (7)

There are many interesting side roads in the book that you should explore. Take “knowledge,” for example. Knowledge applies to everybody and every type of organization, and I think you’ll find a trove of useful ideas in the chapter “Pursuit of Knowledge.” Some data, for example, do need to be committed to memory:

The ultimate goal is not just to memorize these weapons capabilities in list form but rather be able to look at a map and intuitively visualize the range circles sprouting from each weapon. Then when you look up from the map at the terrain in front of you those same range circles unfold in your mind. … intuitive decision making is almost always preferable to analytical decision making in battle because intuitive decision making is much faster and generally more effective.

The trick is which data to memorize, and then how to tie these facts into intuitive decision making so that they don’t just become courses in the Five Minute University, regurgitated for the test and then quickly forgotten.

All of these practices, including memorization and development of intuitive execution, must support the author’s insistence, noted above, that we master the ability to “execute techniques under stress while reacting to unexpected variables and adjusting the techniques as needed in real-time to meet the demands of the specific situation.” The American strategist John Boyd coined a term for this ability. He called it “building snowmobiles,” and maintained that the ability to do this is the essential skill that separates winners from losers.*

What the authors have produced is the first practical handbook for building snowmobiles, and one that is accessible to everybody. I think Boyd would be very, very excited about this book.

A couple of notes. First on the treatment of OODA loops. The authors claim that “Taking action will by definition change the situation, requiring the pilot to repeat the process all over again, observing, orienting, deciding and acting. This cycle repeats in a continuing ‘loop,’ thus the term OODA Loop is another descriptor for Boyd’s decision cycle.”

As I have argued at length in my paper “Boyd’s OODA loop,” (available for free download from our Articles page) this model doesn’t really work very well. Boyd himself came to realize this when he drew his OODA “loop” sketch (reproduced in my paper) in The Essence of Winning and Losing. The authors of this book are well aware of this, however, and explain their use of the circular model thusly:

Whether or not the last few pages accurately captured Boyd’s thinking, they certainty capture how the average military leader interpreted Boyd’s thinking. … Most importantly, the simplified narrative is more accessible and in some cases easier for most people to apply to real-world problems.

As I also note in my paper, the circular model is a subset of Boyd’s OODA “loop” sketch and does accurately represent his model of learning, that is how to build and employ snowmobiles. Creativity and leadership under fire. And since learning is what this book is all about, I can endorse their use of the circular representation, even if it is not a good model of decisions and actions in a rapidly changing situation.

Also, a note on authorship. No author is listed, but the principle author is the leading expert on outcomes based learning, Don Vandergriff, author of many works on improving leadership in critical command situations, including Raising the Bar, The Path to Victory, and Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture.

Don told me that the Special Tactics Staff provided support and contributions. Incidentally, the general background of the Special Tactics team comes out of Tier-1 Special Missions Units and Special Forces.

I strongly recommend this book. You’ll find all sorts of interesting topics, all in a highly readable style that you will find difficult to put down. No matter what your occupation, by the end of this book, you will be building better snowmobiles faster.

*The idea is that a snowmobile takes bits and pieces from what’s readily available — in this case, what we already know — and combines them in a new way to solve a problem. Boyd describes the process and importance of building snowmobiles in his presentation Strategic Game of ? and ?, available from our Articles page.

Auftragstaktik in one simple diagram

The concept of Auftragstaktik is more complicated than just “Tell them what to do, then walk away.” The root of “Auftragstaktik” is a German word for “contract,” and that’s how Boyd describes mission command in Patterns, (p. 76):

A contract, even a conceptual one, means negotiation and salesmanship, as you can see. For example, does the subordinate understand how their mission fits into the overall operational concept? Are you confident that they have the requisite tactical skills to accomplish the mission? Do they have the character and determination to see the mission through, even to change it without orders if that is what is required to meet the commander’s intent? The amount of latitude you give your subordinate and the way you phrase your mission order will depend on how you answer questions like these.

Giving an effective mission order, therefore, is a skill to be acquired not a checklist to be memorized. As such, it takes a fair amount of training and a lot of practice to get good at it. And you should not be surprised to find out that the best way to teach Auftragstaktik is via … Auftragstaktik.

Here’s an example from Chris Casey’s and Don Vandergriff’s article, “The Future of TECOM,” in the June 2020 issue of Marine Corps Gazette. It neatly encapsulates the whole philosophy of mission command:

I love this chart! On the left, you see the checklist mentality: Did they comply with the internal, organizational requirements? On the right, what Casey and Vandergriff call “outcomes-based learning”: Did they achieve the objective “within the context of the current situation and the higher commander’s intent”? During the negotiation process, the commander must ensure that there is no confusion on these matters.

Another reason I like this is that you can see all of the other elements of Boyd’s organizational climate:

  • Schwerpunkt — “the context of the current situation and higher commander’s intent;” answers the “Limitation” from Boyd’s slide.
  • Einheit — in the sense of “mutual trust,” of course, but also mutual understanding of the “context of the current situation,” what Boyd called a “common outlook” or “similar implicit orientation.”
  • Fingerspitzengefühl — In a rapidly changing situation, most communication has to be implicit. The commander, for example, must be able to read the subordinate and intuitively decide if a common outlook is established, the negotiation is complete, and the subordinate is committed.

Perhaps you can help me on this, but I don’t see any reason this approach won’t apply to business or to any competitive endeavor among organizations.

Creating agile leaders

All forms of mission-oriented leadership, from maneuver warfare to the Toyota Production System, share a common foundation: Fire up the creativity and initiative of all members of the organization and harmonize their efforts to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Such an orientation allows them to create and exploit fleeting opportunities before their opponents can understand what is going on.

As Don Vandergriff quotes one of the principal architects of the German blitzkrieg:

The principle thing now is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army. . . .The limitations imposed by exterior circumstances cause us to give the mind more freedom of activity, with the profitable result of increasing the ability of the individual.

HANS VON SEECKT, Commander of the German Army, 1920 -1926

This approach is often called Auftragstaktik, and it is hard to find any military organization that doesn’t claim to be using it.

Continue reading

Creating mission-oriented leaders

Don’t you want your organization to run better? Of course you do: Get rid of the office politics, cliques, backstabbing, passive aggression — morale goes up, blood pressure goes down, objectives are routinely exceeded, competitors / opponents get trounced. Hence, the size of modern CEO offices, which need to be that big to hold all the books on how to actually do it.

Among the many approaches, “agility” proposes to use time to shape the competitive environment, and, if necessary, react to changes before they become fatal. Nestled within the agile approaches, there is a school that insists the best way to do this is to fire up creativity and initiative throughout the organization and harmonize them to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Note that “throughout” includes everybody from new hires to the aforementioned CEO.

Boyd’s philosophy is obviously in this category. He proposed an organizational climate, often known by the acronym EBFAS,* whose purpose was to produce organizations that could shape, reorient to, and exploit rapidly changing situations.  Boyd regarded conflict as characterized by deception, surprise, ambiguity, stress and threat, which can lead to fear, mistrust, and a breakdown of cohesion. “Reorient to” is a way of saying that you understand such situations better than your opponents. “Rapidly” implies that given time, your opponents will figure these things out; don’t give them the time.

The “E” in EBFAS stands for Einheit, for which Boyd adopted the English “mutual trust.” It is fundamental, so organizational cultures that focus on building mutual trust are sometimes called “trust based.”  Of the other letters, perhaps the best known is “A” for another German word, Auftragstaktik, often translated as “mission command.”  It has become something of a sub-genre in management literature.**

Last month, I featured an article by Don Vandergriff on Auftragstaktik, where he described the origins of the concept and why high performing organizations use it.

Don has now followed up with a well-documented piece on how to train people for Auftragstaktik .  He describes an emerging methodology within the Army, Adaptive Leader Soldier Training and Education (ALSTE), and an implementation, the Army Reconnaissance Course, that have proven to develop leaders who can excel under the philosophy of mission command. These programs reflect initiatives Don has been working on for years and documented as far back as Raising the Bar (2006).

*I’ve done several posts on EBFAS — please use the search feature in the right column if you’re interested.

**For an in-depth look at Auftragstaktik, I can recommend Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action and Don’s recent book on Mission Command.

Deep foundation for Auftragstaktik

Don Vandergriff has a nice piece at Small Wars Journal on how Auftragstaktik developed and why.  He makes what to me is an extremely important but generally overlooked point that mission orders, which is how most people explain the term, are not what defines Auftragstaktik but represent evidence that the underlying culture is alive and working.

As a culture, Auftragstaktik implies that those who can influence the organization — top leaders, board members, large shareholders, influential members of Congress, etc. — have given careful thought to and so evolved practices for selecting, training, retaining, and promoting people who embody the philosophy and separating those who do not.

If this happens, what we call “mission orders” (or something, perhaps, even better) will be the natural outcome.


Mission Command 201

Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, An Anthology
by Donald Vandergriff (Author, Editor),‎ Stephen Webber (Editor
August 2017

I like good anthologies, and this is a very good one. Good anthologies can do several things, among them:

  • Provide discrete bins of thought that you can mine for nuggets — parts for your snowmobiles.
  • Let you look at a concept, in this case, “mission command,” from alternative viewpoints. Sometimes this can lead to an “Aha!” moment.
  • Expand your orientation — are you really doing all you could to engage the hippocampus? Be honest, now.

Cover of Mission CommandDon and Steve have done a great job of collecting essays that take you far beyond “What is Mission Command?”  In fact, when you get through, you may find that you know less about the concept than you thought. For example, people sometimes equate mission command with the German term Auftragstaktik.  But Auftrag doesn’t mean “mission.” It’s more like the English “contract.” When Boyd’s talking about “the German concept of ‘mission,'” he notes on Patterns of Conflict, slide 76:

The German concept of mission can be thought of as a contract, hence an agreement, between superior and subordinate. The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinate wide freedom to exercise his imagination and initiative in terms of how intent is to be realized.

As part of this concept, the subordinate is given the right to challenge or question the feasibility of mission if he feels his superior’s ideas on what can be achieved are not in accord with the existing situation or if he feels his superior has not given him adequate resources to carry it out. Likewise, the superior has every right to expect his subordinate to carry out the mission contract when agreement is reached on what can be achieved consistent with the existing situation and resources provided.

So there’s obviously a lot more to the concept than simply “Tell people what to do and let them decide how.”   Don’s and Steve’s anthology will help you broaden your understanding and, perhaps, improve your use of the underlying philosophy in your own organization.

All the chapters are good, but I’d like to draw your attention to a couple that you might find especially broadening.

Quo vadis, mission command?

First, Grant Martin’s chapter on “Type II” mission command for situations where “the commander’s intent is ambiguous or weakly connected to the political purpose of the operation. … What should be added is how to conduct mission command when the purpose of the operation is unclear, where the scope is unbounded, and where cause and effect are not linear.”  Most business applications, in other words.  He proposes a new definition

In non-linear causality  situations, however, leaders must both assist and be assisted by their subordinates to best appreciate the context of the situation and during execution must learn and constantly adjust the appreciation of the context based on that learning. Of note: The learning must go both ways.

Boyd, didn’t like the term “command & control,” suggesting instead “leadership & appreciation.” Where does this leave mission “command”? If Martin’s idea intrigues you, you might explore other possibilities for expanding the concept. Boyd used the term “organic,” which has some of the bottom-up flavor suggested by Martin (there’s an example in chapter 5 of Certain to Win). Another idea is not to issue orders, even mission orders, at all, a possibility explored by David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around!**

The requisite physical energy***

Daniel Markert and Scott Sonnon introduce subjects that you don’t often find in leadership texts in their chapter, “Operationally fit for mission command.” For those of you not up on your neurophysiology, this one may be a little challenging. Just accept that the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and their kin are regions within the brain (or you could Google them and find out where). Markert and Sonnon address a major but often overlooked issue in leadership, that leaders inhabit human bodies:

The rapid onset of the fatigue reflex elevates stress arousal and degrades cognitive function with negative effects on shared understanding, risk awareness, creativity, and decisiveness.

They explain why this is true and what you can do about it. Recall that Boyd suggested that “Without a common outlook, superiors cannot give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action” (Patterns 74), so this is important stuff, and Markert’s and Sonnon’s chapter may start you down a productive path.

Explore, enjoy, learn, question.

Preview / buy Mission Command at Amazon


*This idea is implicit in Boyd’s EBFAS climate. Stephen Bungay develops it in detail in The Art of Action, where he, essentially, equates Auftragstaktik with Boyd’s entire EBFAS climate. Mini review in  an earlier post.

**Also covered in my presentation, All by Ourselves, available on the Articles page and in the mini review mentioned above.

***Observation by Gen Hermann Balck, Patterns, p. 118.