Why is this interesting? - The Green Beret Edition

On planning, failure, and the frameworks used by the Army Special Forces

Noah and I are big believers in cross pollinating knowledge and approaches. Some of our friends, including today’s guest, Chris Papasadero (CPP), are current and former Green Berets, known as Army Special Forces. They way they plan, the autonomy that is given to their teams to execute in difficult places, and the fact that they have built in redundancies to every plan (and expect things to fail) holds many lessons for people operating in other contexts. Business, entrepreneurship, and even creative endeavors that require briefs, stand to learn a lot from this world. Also, you should hire them when they finish doing the hard yards in hostile places, and sign up for Brady Moore’s excellent newsletter, which talks about strategy and planning on a daily basis. - Colin (CJN)

Chris here. The role of leadership in Army Special Operations is as much ethics as it is strategy. Throughout the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), Green Berets develop frameworks for considering the implications of the choices they’ll make: strategically, legally, and ethically. They are trained to build plans that can bend and adapt when combat presents unforeseen obstacles.

Take this HBR case on an insurgent situation in Iraq, where a lieutenant must decide “whether to risk his life and that of other soldiers to reenter a home rigged with an explosive and save three Iraqis.” Decisions like that must be made quickly and based on a strategically sound and legal framework. You might be tempted to make one call when you first read it, and change your mind as you keep reflecting.

Many people make these choices about right or wrong based on “gut feeling”, but what Green Berets learn in SFQC is to first evaluate situations using frameworks, making sure they’ve thought through as many scenarios as possible. Only after they apply rigor to their process can they use their gut. There are plenty of frameworks available, from the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), to the Force Multiplier, to SWOT Analysis, to the CARVER Matrix (one of my personal favorites).

The simplest “martial” mental model I’ve found useful – to the point of becoming instinctive – is enumerated in the Special Forces values painted on the cafeteria wall in the compound at Camp Mackall, North Carolina: “Consider the Second- and Third-Order Effects!” When things don’t go as planned in situational training exercises, Green Berets get it hammered into their heads that their actions have reactions that become other causes, with cascading effects. A seemingly minor cultural slight to a local warlord can mean losing a key alliance in an austere combat situation – a loss every Green Beret guards against at all times. Despite how complicated it sounds, there’s a simple methodology for developing branches to the plan with such considerations.

Considering second and third order effects is a major part of creating plans that can evolve as events unfold – and this is the point of the Green Beret way of planning:

"The focus of any planning process should be to quickly develop a flexible, tactically sound, and fully integrated and synchronized plan that increases the likelihood of mission success with the fewest casualties possible. However, any operation may “outrun” the initial plan. The most detailed estimates cannot anticipate every possible branch or sequel, enemy action, unexpected opportunities [...] Fleeting opportunities or unexpected enemy actions may require a quick decision to implement a new or modified plan.” – Field Manual 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations

Why is this interesting?

Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Today’s Green Berets believe the very same thing, and have created methodologies like the Detachment Mission Planning Process that use planning to prepare for the many possible paths combat can take. Each Green Beret writes his team’s own plans (which is uncommon throughout the military), taking responsibility both for the successes of the plan, as well as for its inevitable failures.

That last point is the big one: Green Berets build plans that anticipate their own failure. Only by acknowledging and actively seeking the weaknesses in their approach, can they push the plan further away from those failure points. It’s one part game theory, combined with a heavy dose of humility in recognizing that the unexpected is the norm in a combat zone. Failure mode for a Green Beret is to suck it up, slam a laptop on the hood of a HMMWV, and get on with adjusting the plan. That’s the whole point of planning for a Green Beret: to understand what should happen in order to have a framework for what could happen, and to then be prepared for what inevitably will happen.

Military men often earn a reputation for deterministic thinking: Step A, then Step B, in that order. While we can save the high-strung veteran heuristics for another day, systematic thinking is the right way to start your day, and then probabilistic thinking can take over once “the first bullet flies” come nightfall (EENT). (CPP)

A few more models and practices worth trying for yourself:

Map of the Day:

A look at Chinese port investment in Africa. “There are at least 46 existing or planned port projects in sub-Saharan Africa, which are funded, built, and or operated by Chinese entities. Chinese investment was present in roughly 17 percent of the 172 sub-Saharan African ports captured in the 2017 World Port Index. These ports are positioned along each coast, providing Chinese access to main maritime routes and chokepoints.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Chris (CPP)