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Decisive Decision Making in a High Stakes Environment

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

“The first step is always the most important.”

If there was one thing I learned in my more than 30 years in the military special operations, it was the importance of planning for any crisis. A crisis, as we know in the military, can happen with all too frequent regularity and causes a sudden unstable or dangerous condition. But no matter how often we are confronted with a crisis, we never feel fully prepared. The first natural response in a crisis is to act quickly, but so often, that leaves us with a less than adequate outcome.

There was a specific process that I learned during my military tenure that was invaluable to me - it is called “Crisis Action Planning.” Crisis Action Planning involves the development of plans in response to an imminent crisis, and its goal is to help abbreviate longer planning cycles and improve efficiency. During Crisis Action Planning, time is of the essence and therefore abbreviated planning is needed to meet the time restraints. Taking quick action does work sometimes, but often the result is that overall quality suffers. So we have to choose between doing something quickly, or doing it well because having one often comes at the cost of another. We need to ensure quality, but we still need to be able to quickly act when needed – so the question remains - how do we make decisions rapidly enough to react to impending crises while ensuring our decisions are sound?

The way to fix the issue is to spend a great deal of time and effort “understanding the problem.” That statement in itself means different things to different people. I remember a specific military unit getting ready to deploy for a combat deployment. They had just received some classes on Arab culture and the “dos and don’ts” of acceptable cultural norms for Middle East society. I asked them if they felt they really understood the environment in which they were going and the universal response I got was a confident, “yes.” They would tell me that they learned, for example, not to show the bottom of their shoes to people, not to eat with their left hand and not to look directly at a woman. They were certain they were totally prepared for their mission ahead. Although those are good basic lessons for superficially “getting along” in any given society, it is by far not enough to build relationships, understand the nuances of the culture, appreciate the complexities between groups, or grasp the significance of the countries’ history, language, or religion - elements so profoundly important to understanding a people.

Making credible, reasonable and feasible decisions, requires a deep understanding of the problem (the root cause, facts, assumptions, perceptions, authorities, and an understanding of the endstates). Additionally, we would want to understand what the Center of Gravity is for us and for the environment which we are trying to affect. This is not just for military operations but for all high-level organizations that want to make changes to outcomes. How does this help with Crisis Action Planning or the requirement for quick decision-making?

Taking the time early in the process to really understand the problem, bring true experts into the discussion, review your endstates, and build your framework will enable rapid decisions when you need them the most. In time of crisis we will all make a decision (even deciding to do nothing is a decision). When the time comes to make rapid decisions, the one who understands the problem the best will be able to process the immediate situation better and have a clear idea of what each action would cause and what the 2nd and 3rd Order of Effects would be. Regardless, whether you have a long time to plan or whether you have a short-time frame, your research and understanding of the problem early will prepare you and your leaders to make better decisions.

You have probably heard the old saying, “Those that fail to plan, are planning to fail,” right? Well, I believe “if you never really understand the problem there will always be a problem in your solution.”

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