Planners never achieve perfection. Rarely do they meet their own exacting standards. The cumulative impacts of time, circumstance, and the adversary require constant iteration and revision. No plan survives contact with the enemy (or the commander, for that matter), but good planners understand that planning is an unending journey and the production of a plan is rarely the final destination. The best planners also understand that every opportunity to plan offers an opportunity to learn, as well.

Where opportunities to execute plans in full may be limited, military professionalism is honed through relentless and often thankless planning activities. But planning is far more than rigid adherence to a process. At its best, it is a human endeavor that aims to create shared understanding through the effective visualization and description of both the environment as well as possible approaches that can be applied to shape the environment in our favor. It is both art and science, can be deliberate or hasty, and always benefits from the intimate involvement of the commander.

During my military career, I have had the privilege to participate in planning at tactical, operational, and strategic headquarters—a privilege that has given me a deep appreciation of the importance of planning. Below are a series of reflections based on those experiences. They are personal and conceptual and not meant to be universal or prescriptive. Importantly, these reflections represent accumulated knowledge that has been and will continue to be shaped and reshaped by experience.

1. Planning processes are designed to allow the masses to achieve by process what military geniuses throughout history have achieved through intuition. It is, therefore, impossible for planning doctrine to fully encapsulate the intangibles that lead to military success. This is important to understand since proscriptive, doctrinal approaches to planning rarely allow for the creativity required by military plans to succeed in a contest of human will. The true benefit of planning over individually driven genius, however, is the collaborative spirit that can lead to outside-the-box solutions. Whole-of-staff planning supports commanders to make better decisions because they elicit a broad range of inputs. The real art of planning is integrating and synchronizing these diverse inputs to achieve shared understanding and unity of effort. This is the most challenging part of any planning activity and is usually best achieved by a very small group of highly experienced generalists.

Doctrine provides an excellent starting point to speed up comprehension of what is required to enable mission execution. But a good staff knows to use it as a baseline, not a handrail. The best staffs achieve a collective intuition through relentless practice that generates tempo through speeding up execution. They create shared understanding across staff functions and with superior and subordinate headquarters through the creation of systems and shortcuts that work for their circumstances. Importantly, however, they will constantly review their approach to look for new and better ways to help their commanders make sense of complexity and act preemptively.

2. Planning should always start with a thorough understanding of the “why.” This ensures that options for how different effects can or should be achieved inform a commander’s intent, rather than being dictated by them. It also ensures that what we actually do achieves the best possible outcomes. The most important part of planning is framing the problem and creating shared understanding of the challenge the force is trying to address. Throughout this process planners should identify and communicate the opportunities, vulnerabilities, risk, and potential consequences of various actions. Planning is about rapidly and continuously contextualizing both the so what and the what next. It is about enabling the force to initiate actions when opportunity or vulnerability is identified, rather than waiting for the conduct of a formal wargame.

3. Philosophical approaches to planning are fundamentally sound. Nonetheless, military planning processes still tend to encourage linear thinking in a world where, to borrow an idea from Gen. Scott Miller, commander the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, there are no straight lines leading to virtually any particularly political objective. Planning is about understanding how the different variables in a complex adaptive system can interact and posturing the force to exploit, defend, or mitigate the resultant outcomes. The processes used must account for this dynamism.

Language and graphical representation plays an important and underestimated role in perpetuating this flawed methodology. We teach lines of effort and lines of operation, all geared to move directly through the adversary’s center of gravity, to achieve a desired endstate. This linearity discourages creativity and is often based more on the limitations of PowerPoint than the human brain’s capacity for nonlinear thinking. These operational designs can be useful for creating discussion and debate. However, if the substance is only “PowerPoint deep,” shared understanding will be sacrificed to competing interpretations.

Patrick Mulloy takes this one step further when he argues:

Products such as synchronization matrices reinforce a false narrative that war is predictable, perhaps even something to be scheduled. The idea that variables can be controlled over time against complex adaptive systems is categorically false. In reality, the only certainty in war is uncertainty.

Doctrine can’t and shouldn’t tell you what right looks like. Right looks like friendly forces dictating the changes to the environment, not being dictated to. How this is achieved depends on circumstance and the adversary. Therefore, the ability to frame and reframe the environment and effectively visualize the battlespace as a complex adaptive system are essential planning competencies. Moreover, the staff best supports a commander when they have a detailed, shared understanding of the battlespace and its attendant challenges through tracking a range of plausible alternate futures.

4. Critiquing the limitations of doctrine should not be misconstrued as an excuse for a lack of detail in planning. In fact, the more detail that is captured during planning, the less likely a force is to be surprised. Planning is about deep consideration of what is possible. It is a continuous wargame that aims to understand the potential actions, responses, and options available to all participants in a contest. The output of a planning process is not a single plan, but the preparation of a range of contingent responses that avoid disorientation through surprise. As Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

5. “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”Winston Churchill.

Avoid planning from perceived start to expected finish, or you will fail. Have a detailed plan for the first bite and develop a series of contingent actions based on visualization of multiple plausible futures. To expect you can control an entire battle, let alone multiple engagements, demonstrates a failure to understand the nature of war, shaped as it is by friction, chance, and uncertainty. Furthermore, planning too far ahead based on an expected causal chain takes planning focus away from the detailed synchronization and integration required to give the first engagement the best chance of success.

This is not to suggest that future actions should not be considered concurrent to execution. However, a staff focused solely on exquisite execution may never take advantage of emergent opportunities. Worse still is a staff so focused on their desired future that they are unable to achieve success in the moment. Rather, what is required are clear and well-rehearsed procedures for handing over planning horizons to ensure continuity between concept and execution. This requires trust and shared understanding between the various staff elements (in particular, the J5, J35 and J3).

6. A methodology for understanding whether a force is achieving success is critical. At a campaign level, “success” is entirely reliant on understanding change over time and not mistaking correlation for causation. Planning is all about making forecasts, but the staff must ruthlessly track these forecasts and have some form of criteria for understanding when circumstances are moving outside of an appropriate tolerance. These decision points must be understood early and assets assigned to deal with them. This forms the basis for “be prepared to” tasks—the things we would really rather not have to do if all is going to plan—or “on order” actions—the things we aim to do to exploit success.

An assessments team can contribute to this. But assessments are more than the single staff section assigned to complete them. They are command-led and staff-enabled. Poor assessments mean ineffectual plans, but the mechanism to conduct assessment will be different based on circumstance and resources. Importantly, good assessment relies on brutal honesty about current conditions and a clear understanding of bias. Assessments are useless if they reflect what we want to happen, not what is happening.

Never be afraid to acknowledge when a plan has been invalidated by circumstance. The worst thing a staff can do is continue with an existing plan when they know it is no longer relevant. Moral courage is acknowledging when a plan failed to account for emergent conditions and starting afresh to reframe the approach in light of the new conditions. Mulloy takes this once step further, arguing:

In today’s environment adapting is insufficient. Planners must plan to adapt. Adapting is readjusting a failed plan. Planning to adapt is anticipating readjusting a failed plan.

This highlights that there is no such thing as an “endstate.” The desired future conditions are a transient state that lead to new challenges in framing and understanding the new environment. Good planning never ends, but is continually reviewed and updated in light of new and anticipated conditions. A simple method to account for this requirement is the maintenance of a detailed, whole-of-staff, running estimate to test and adjust from.

7. The best plans are underpinned by a culture of intelligence within the staff. This is not simply the domain of the intelligence function; it is about ensuring the whole staff consider the problem from the adversary’s perspective. This requires detailed reverse planning by subject matter experts to understand how an adversary will employ its resources to gain advantage. Importantly, reverse planning gains whole-of-staff buy-in when considering adversary options. It ensures planners adopt an “action, reaction, counteraction” mindset from the outset and dramatically improves the conduct of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. Shared understanding of the adversary and environment stem from a comprehensive process of joint intelligence preparation of the operational environment that frames the problem. However, if the adversary and environment are represented only by the intelligence staff, planning failure is almost certainly assured.

Planning is a contact sport. No plan survives contact with the enemy and few will escape unscathed after being briefed to an adept commander. But, planning is always a team sport. Collaboration and shared understanding are the critical enablers to good planning. A capable planning team is the brain for any headquarters—the critical link between good ideas and executable actions. At its heart, planning is a human endeavor and planners are much more than process-driven automatons. While always guided by doctrine, experience frees the planning staff to harness their combined intuition to craft innovative approaches with which to attack wicked problems. No plan is ever perfect, but the best plans account for changing conditions, posture a force to act preemptively, and seek to understand opportunity, vulnerability, and risk in a way that drives tempo superior to that of an adversary. Most importantly, planning is a journey without an end—a journey informed by the compounding knowledge of planners who seek to learn from every opportunity to engage in the activity.


Mark Gilchrist is an Australian Army officer who plans a lot. Follow him on Twitter: @Gilchrist_MA. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, nor those of the Australian Army, Department of Defence, or Australian government.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Adrian Patoka, US Army