PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- --
"We are facing…a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory." - 2018 National Defense Strategy
Undoubtedly, we are operating in an uncertain strategic environment which exacerbates operational and tactical uncertainty. Leaders must be ready to execute through a wide range of outcomes. Just as our National Command Authority must continue to plan, make decisions, communicate, and execute despite this uncertainty, so too must leaders at all levels. This article will use a notional scenario to illustrate a model and some considerations for the leader operating in an uncertain environment.
Scenario: The 4th Space Control Squadron deploys teams to support geographic combatant commanders' priorities. The timing and tempo of our deployments is set almost exclusively by external factors which creates uncertainty for our teams.
Step 1: Assess the Elements of Uncertainty
In order to effectively plan for uncertain outcomes, the leader must be comfortable with situations where there are more variables than solutions. Only when the leader acknowledges the uncertainties that put his vision at risk can the plan account for those variables.
In the notional scenario, the deployment commander’s goal is for the team to be in country performing their mission by January 1 based on combatant command need date of February 1. To achieve that goal, however, there are many factors outside Air Force Space Command control. For instance: the supported task force has to be ready to receive us; if we are deploying to a new site, the site must be prepared; Higher Headquarters Approval Authority must approve our movement, etc. The only way to ensure mission success is to acknowledge those variables so that you can proceed to dealing with them through planning and execution.
Step 2: Plan to Account for Uncertainty
Every leader should have goals for their unit that align with priorities and a strategic vision. However, goals alone do not propel an organization to success, rather planning is the bridge between goals and reality.
The deployment commander has to plan for many factors. For this example, we’ll focus on mission-related training. If the team completes training too early and the tasking order doesn't come through, they miss their vulnerability window. We’ll have to train a new team and ultimately miss the target date. If we wait until we have an execution order to train, we are late to meet the CCMDR's mission need. Therefore, the leadership team must frame the left and right bounds of the problem with an associated confidence assessment so our deployment commander and his team can plan branches to address contingencies.
Step 3: Communicate the Plan
The biggest challenge leaders face executing through uncertainty is communicating with their team. At best, uncertainty creates angst in a unit; at worst, it can lead to flawed decisions and mission failure. Therefore, transparency is key. In deciding what to communicate, the only wrong answers are everything and nothing. If the leader communicates nothing, speculation and rumors will run rampant. It is the leader’s judgment that determines what is worth sharing and with whom. Should the leadership team assess information to be 50% or less reliable, it is best to keep that information closely held.
If the deployment commander learns that the previously agreed to site has changed but it is unclear if that affects the schedule, the leadership team may begin "planning to plan." The leadership team may not want to bring the rest of the unit into that process until such time as it affects their actions.
One caveat here: the successful leader must listen. If the Airmen are uneasy with what is going on, it might be time for an update. In fact, it isn't a bad idea to provide schedule-driven updates at regular intervals in addition to any event-driven updates. Sometimes the message is "nothing has changed," but that's better than saying nothing at all. You will find that uncertainty decreases the closer you get to executing your plan, so you may need to increase the frequency of your communication.
Step 4: Execute the Plan Through Mission Command
While uncertainty provides challenges, it could just as easily provide opportunities. Capitalizing on opportunity in an uncertain environment often requires speed and therefore decentralized decisions. For mission command to work, the leader must provide a vision, guidance, authority, and accountability to subordinate leaders who can seize fleeting opportunities.
The deployment commander’s guidance is to move the team into theater with disciplined initiative by the CCMDR’s need date. Let’s say the combatant command limits how many Airmen can deploy. The leader must then make trades, informed by risk analysis, to determine how he will meet the mission needs and satisfy the constraint. If, for instance, he decides to reduce the number of space control operators on his team, he may have to increase the training exposure for his remaining operators and crew chiefs.
In summary, the leader charged with operating through uncertainty must first assess the situation, plan to account for the range of possibilities, communicate the plan and uncertainties' impacts on that plan, and empower the team to navigate those uncertainties through mission command.