Jazz and the Orchestra: The Problem with Planning
By Des FitzGerald
On 15th May 1944, at St Paul’s School in London, General Bernard Montgomery gave a briefing for the upcoming Normandy campaign and how he anticipated the battle developing.
On the large-scale briefing map there were a series of phase lines. These nested within some higher-level phase lines that the COSSAC planners had drawn to show how they thought the advance through North West Europe would develop. As is well known, the campaign did not unfold as Monty had predicted. For example, Caen, which should have been captured on D-Day, was eventually taken on D+33. Cherbourg was taken on D+20. Brest held out until 19 Sep (D+104) and the port was so damaged that it was unusable to the Allies until the end of the war.
The delay in achieving these objectives and the failure to follow the phase lines normally elicits one of two responses. Monty was slow, cautious and over-rated or, that the lines were just planning estimates and he adjusted his plan accordingly. As he achieved the breakout by D+90 and then actually exceeded the planning assumptions it is all perhaps a bit of a moot point. A bit like a broken clock, the phase lines were correct twice: once on the day of the actual landing (i.e. at the start of the operation); the second at about D+90 when the breakout frontline almost matched the prediction. After that the Allies advanced far faster, out ran their logistics and reached the high-water mark at Arnhem. The realities of logistics then enforced a pause as the Allies regrouped.
This simple example illustrates that it is extremely difficult to predict how operations may unfold. The enemy gets a vote and when faced with only two possible alternatives will inevitably select a third. For example, who would have predicted that the Germans would counter attack westwards at Mortain? All military logic suggested holding the jaws of the impending Falaise encirclement open and permitting more forces to escape eastwards would have been more prudent.
I will not discuss here why we feel the need to have at least three Estimate or Decision-Making Processes. If we look at how we currently conduct our planning process, it will be familiar to most of us that we normally reduce the enemy’s actions down to two different options. The Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA), which we plan against, and the Most Dangerous (MDCOA), which we have a contingency plan to deal with. Of course, for planning to proceed we must make some assumptions. So this in itself is not a problem, as long as we always remember that these are only our assessment and that the enemy will invariably do something different.
One of the annexes (often Annex E) in the Operation Order will often be a Synchronisation Matrix. This annex summarises the detailed time and space calculations from the planning. The time and space calculations, drawn from experience or the Staff Officers Hand Book, ensure that units are told when they should be doing some particular activity. From our recent experiences conducting COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan Synchronisation Matrices were used to cover a plethora of activities, many on differing timescales. For example, the whole campaign in years showing when units would deploy, or a shorter timeframe showing the draw-down of units and capabilities over several months. With our technological and materiel advantages over the enemy, along with a foe that was relatively predictable, these made sense.
With our return to contingency, whilst the requirement for planning has not gone away, the need for Headquarters to provide such a detailed Synchronisation Matrix that will stand contact with a peer enemy is questionable.
Looking at the current Operation Orders produced, there appears to be a premium on quantity and also artistic quality. Since the advent of excel and PowerPoint these have become highly detailed and are often produced in technicolour to indicate the level of effort that some hard-working staff officer has put into their development. The Op Orders have plenty of words, pictures, schematics and tactical symbology. Some are easier to measure in thickness (inches) rather than number of pages (hundreds+). The Synchronisation Matrix is not immune from these trends. Below is a Divisional Level synchronisation matrix, an example of the art.
The product of the considerable staff effort is a highly produced and detailed Operation Order, with the Synchronisation Matrix the distillation of all that work. As has been illustrated these can be incredibly detailed, even explaining what the enemy will be doing and when, and how the careful choreography of our units will ensure victory.
Unfortunately, during my time serving in the British Army and also as a contractor, I have observed that perhaps in believe of the infallibility of the staff and the Op Order, commanders often sit passively waiting for the slot when their unit should be doing something. This is despite the fact that they can see and hear that the enemy has failed to follow the script and the plan bears even less relevance with the unfolding reality. This is where we start to fight the plan, no doubt in honour of the staff effort producing such a weighty and detailed tome, rather than fighting the enemy. When Monty led the Army, he became the master of the set piece battle, in part due to the level of training of his conscript army but also to ensure his superiority in artillery and air power could be brought to bear with the greatest effect. Those days are long gone. We have adopted the Mission Command and the Manoeuvrist Approach, where we expect our commanders and leaders to exercise their initiative.
As Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander and a plans officer by background, is reputed to have said ‘Plans are worthless but planning is everything.’
In his book Crusade in Europe he wrote, ‘It was merely another example of the age old truth that every battle plan comprises merely an orderly commitment of troops to battle under the commander’s calculations of desirable objectives and necessary resources, but always with the certainty that enemy reaction will require constant tactical adjustment to the requirements of the moment.’
Be the Jazz Band, not the Orchestra
To my mind, our current obsession with planning is in part because it is a tangible activity that can measured and therefore assessed. This is makes it easier to assess the effectiveness of units against a set of planning steps, each with various products which reaches the apogee in the actual Operation Order. Getting units and formations to conduct planning cycles is cheaper than actually getting them to execute that plan against a thinking enemy.
To use a musical analogy, consider the difference between an orchestra and a jazz band. The orchestra organises and synchronises the actions of a large number of individual players. All will have sheet music so they know what notes and when they have to play them, the whole is controlled by the conductor. He (or she) has a complete and unfettered view of the whole orchestra, also the whole orchestra can also see them. The conductor then directs the tempo of the music and can direct how and when elements should make their contribution. The maestro will wait for complete silence from the audience, then with a flourish of his baton start bringing in the instruments and the whole orchestra is working flawlessly to this one individual, creating a fantastic symphony.
Compare this with the jazz band, which may have a leader, but this individual is likely to also be playing an instrument. Sheet music is unlikely to be used and all players are expected to know the tunes. A major difference is that individuals may take the lead and drive the tempo, the other players then react and improvise to create the overall effect. The jazz band can function despite a range of external factors, such as a boisterous crowd, poor lighting and even power cuts.
Both organisations rely on talented individuals, who have conducted plenty of practice (for the military read training) and know their craft. Without over doing this analogy, I would suggest that removal of a key component (e.g. the conductor, sheet music, percussion section, etc) of the orchestra would have a significantly detrimental effect on their performance. The jazz band, albeit a simpler organisation, is inherently more flexible and would still be able to function to a tolerable level.
A military organisation needs to function in less than perfect conditions and with the enemy attempting to knock lumps out of it. It may be the leader at a lower tactical echelon who can see the fleeting opportunity and seek to exploit this. To exploit this momentary advantage the rest of the unit or formation needs to synchronise and support that activity, potentially changing the whole tempo of the operation. This will not be in the Synchronisation Matrix and those that continue to abide by it will merely act as drag anchors. History is replete with missed opportunities, where the dead hand of a higher headquarters snatches another defeat. Currently, our plans, planning methods and execution are more orchestra than jazz band.
Avoiding the Danger
Therefore, commanders and leaders must be aware of the dangers of planning perfection as practiced in peacetime. For those involved in planning, I would suggest keep your plans as simple as possible and to permit as much flexibility as practicable for your subordinates. The Synchronisation Matrix has value and for all activity before H-Hour can reasonably be expected to be accurate. After H-Hour, some metrics such as allocation of Offensive Support or move times for Reserves are useful. The enemy is most unlikely to have a copy of the synchronisation matrix, so will not follow it. Therefore everything after H-Hour should be viewed as possible but certainly not definite. Perhaps every entry after H-Hour should be in a dashed line to indicate that it is only an estimate? The plan and the order must not constrain your subordinates; over-detailed orders are a constraint.
For those receiving the plan and orders that have a detailed, prescriptive synchronisation matrix you must get an understanding or agreement of when you can deviate from the plan. This is very important because as soon as the enemy deviates from his part of the synchronisation matrix the plan is diverging from reality. Remember to fight the enemy as he is, not as you imagined he was during the planning process. Think Jazz, not orchestra.
If you want read more about how overly-prescriptive orders can cause confusion, read Des Fitzgerald’s other article on the subject, Orders and Disorder.