Planning to learn: Invest in the future of our military by finding good leaders
By Capt. Justin J. Belford, U.S. Army
The idea of flexible planning that incorporates learning is an important concept, and is a break from the predictable doctrine of the past. But in order for it to work, today's military must identify talented leaders, properly incentivize them, and provide them with the resources they need to drive change. Additionally, I would argue that Western militaries must break from the established idea that time equals rank, and focus on promoting its leaders based on their talent and initiative.
Flexible planning is a technique that both the U.S. and Australian militaries convey in their future force concepts as being essential to success in a complex environment.
A shift to the flexible planning model will require that formal detailed planning, which has traditionally been a staple of conventional military forces, include the ability to adapt. In other words, we must "plan to learn" by continuing to conduct detailed battlefield analysis, while developing plans with a basis for adaptation rather than specified direction. The question then becomes, "If we embrace a flexible planning model, how do we build confident leaders capable of thinking and adapting when faced with operational uncertainty?"
"Planning to plan" is an expression synonymous with bureaucratic stagnation and one that sends chills up the spine of both military and private sector organizational leaders. It must however be embraced as the logical first step in adopting the flexible planning model. In the flexible planning model, senior leaders must provide basic mission goals, while ensuring that they stop using the vast array of digital resources at their disposal to provide specific direction at the lowest level. Instead they need to refocus on using this technology to empower leaders as they adapt to the frequently changing conditions on the ground.
This first step can also be the key to identifying and training the future leaders who will ultimately be employing the process. The selection process will need to be one that mirrors private-sector practices by incorporating behavior testing, video interviews and written essay submissions as a way of identifying talent within the force. It will need to solicit volunteers not just from leaders who have proven adequate at meeting specific command metrics, but from those who have been successful at generating creative solutions to complex battlefield problems. In order to effectively incorporate flexible planning into the conventional military model, military leaders must establish a process for selecting creative minds that are passionate about accepting the challenge to change the very core of how we operate.
One pitfall of accepting academic challenges is that it separates leaders from the operational force. In many ways there is an unspoken perception amongst some that those who volunteer for such assignments are isolating themselves or "looking for the cushy assignment," which can damage a leader's chance of long-term success. In order to overcome this perception, we will need to incentivize those leaders that step up to meet the challenge by promoting them into key positions within the force and by guaranteeing them follow-on duties in key developmental assignments. This will thereby actively change the perception and prove that time spent in developmental academia is an important investment in the future of our organization.
Both the U.S. and Australian future organizational concepts recognize the importance of individual judgments and tactical intelligence as a way to deal with the problem of operational uncertainty and the changing nature of the modern battlespace. They seek to modernize the force by utilizing flexible plans, which force us to build leaders not afraid of thinking, adapting, and exercising their own good tactical judgment in an uncertain environment. In order for the concepts to be successful, today's military must identify its most talented leaders, provide them with motivation, and empower them with the authority to drive change. If done on a consistent basis, "planning to learn" will improve our militaries' ability to remain flexible and capable of meeting any threat, thereby maintaining military superiority in an environment that will undoubtedly remain uncertain.
Justin Belford is an Army captain and is currently on his second tour of company command. He is a graduate of St. Michael's College and Missouri University of Science and Technology. He has worked in West Africa, East Asia, and Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.