Mission Driven: Work to eliminate uncertainty and surprises

Agencies are experiencing an explosion of complexity, and with that, increased expectations and accountability. Federal assistance is shrinking or at best, flat lined. These trends drive the need for greater adaptability, and increasing the speed of the decision cycle.  The model of hierarchal, centralized command and control reflects an obsolete leadership paradigm that believes people are cogs and controllable by systems.  This model fails in large, dynamic events. Information cannot flow ‘up’, be decided upon, and flow ‘down’ fast enough before the decision is rendered irrelevant by changing circumstance.

Paradoxically, centralization seems part of our nature.  For the most part, emergency responders work in government agencies that tend to be bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies seek equilibrium and self-preservation. The goal is eliminating uncertainty and surprises. The absence of bad things becomes valued more than the presence of good things.  The well-worn path to avoid bad things is to make lots of rules and centralize authority.

Inevitably layers on layers of policies and rules impact operational culture.  They create a culture of permission asking followers.  Originally intended to eliminate negative outcomes, myriad rules end up stifling initiative, discretion and judgment.  While waiting for permission, critical windows of opportunity are missed, and, as we read in Part 1, a man drowns to death.

This is the Myth of Control.  The more one tries to reach down and grab control in chaos, the less control one actually has. That cultural model creates micromanagers and followers rather than leaders and operators.

The culture of permission asking also creates risk aversion. Followers are more afraid of breaking rules and making mistakes than of losing an opportunity to make a difference. Team failure is acceptable because of the cultural norm that individual failure, and not team failure, is what gets punished. Thus, the focus is not on success, but rather on avoiding failure.

Nearly 200 years ago, Carl von Clausewitz first used the term Fog in describing the effects of chaos on the battlefield.  The phrase, Fog of War quickly became part of military science.  He noted that the combination of friction, danger and uncertainty would stymie the efforts of a force to project its will on the operational environment. These elements are inherent in the DNA of chaos.  An increase in one – uncertainty, for example - tends to start a snowball effect with the other two elements and magnifies their cumulative effects. Often unexpectedly.

We’re at a point in society where the fire or the flood is no longer the primary issue.  Second and third order effects that cascade into the strategic, human driven dimensions of incident management create new levels of complexity: Political, Security, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, Information. These dimensions greatly magnify expectations and demands for results. Operators do not implement strategy, but in this environment one operator, at the right time and place – or the wrong time and place – can have strategic impact.  Just contrast the two stories in Part 1 of this article for examples of both.
The fog guarantees that, by the time a request has reached higher authority, the situation has completely changed.  The window of opportunity has closed.  Mission Command doctrine urges “…the use of commander’s intent and exercising disciplined initiative to seize, exploit and retain the initiative.”
MDC and its intent based planning system is based on 3 foundational assumptions about an operating environment where the fog of war is common:

● Uncertainty - Every decision made in real time is imperfect.
● Friction - Generally, the best decisions will be made by those closest to the event.
● Danger - A well trained operator, taking reasonable precautions, can still be injured or killed.

Rules and standard operating procedures that work well in routine emergencies begin to break down quickly as the fog increases.  

In MDC, many policies and rules are considered authoritative but flexible. Operators are expected to use disciplined initiative to adapt the rule to the situation.  Operators are even expected to disobey literal orders when they understand the situation has changed where following those orders would prevent accomplishing mission intent.

MDC relies on professional judgment to reach the appropriate decision in chaotic circumstances. Decisions that result in bad outcomes, if made in good faith trying to meet the intent, are underwritten as acceptable losses and learning opportunities for the organization.

The Myth of Control leads to another logic flaw within operational culture – that systems govern people instead of the other way around. This leads to a compliance mindset.  Compliance is necessary and effective in managing machines, material and money.  It is counter-productive in managing human behavior. Bureaucracies tend to forget that bringing order to chaos is a creative and interactive social process between humans. This type of collaboration is not managed well by policies.

In a rules-based system, any failure results in one of two possible conclusions:
● There was no rule, so now, we just need to make a new rule.
● The existing rule did not work. We need a better rule. A stronger rule!

Over time, the thickness of policy documents results in many rules that contradict others. This guarantees an environment where people cannot do their jobs and comply with all the rules on the best day. Thus, on the worst day as chaos and the fog of war increase, mission success is even more unachievable. When such failure is investigated and judged in hindsight against the agency’s own rules, leaders often have no viable defense.             C

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