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Planning isn’t everything: we need more focus on the execute

It’s ENDEX1 at a command post exercise.  The Chief of Staff and Battle Captains from the various functional cells thank their signallers and begin to closedown their laptops.  They know that they will soon be ‘in their own time’, so they collate ‘improve’ and ‘sustain’ points which will form the lessons identified ready for the looming after action review (AAR).  This process is analogue and biased towards planning at the expense of the execution.

Eisenhower suggests: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything”.  But there is always a nagging feeling at this point: How do we know what the ‘correct’ lessons to learn are?  And did the outcome happen because of the planning or the execution?  It is cheap and simple for units to conduct planning exercises and train their planning staff; TEWTs2, historical set-piece examples, and any map with an outline scenario is all that is required to invest in the “5 shop” planning cell. 

But what about the execution?  What about the current operations team?

Command post exercises have been debated across the Wavell Room before.  Steve B has argued that the current training model does not meet modern requirements.  This article developed this argument to add that more time and resource needs to be directed to those making decisions and supporting the execution of an operation.  In presenting some potential solutions to improve execution training, it becomes clear that Defence has not invested sufficient time or effort into training the execute.  In contrast to Steve B’s case for more realistic field training, this article presents the case for more focus on decision making. Current operations teams (“the 3 shop”) should be able to play, and replay, decision-making reps to hone their ability.  This would allow a focus on experiment and to be able to learn from failure.  In short the Defence operators needs reps, reps, reps. Whilst this article focuses principally on Army staff training, the ideas identified are common to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Planning Versus Execution

When the execution tent receives the hand over take over of the plan the planning team have completed their part and can move on to the next planning cycle.  If as Churchill suggests: “Plans are of little importance but planning is essential” then the value is held in ‘the planning’.  In contrast to the plans team, the operations cell have not benefited from the ‘planning’ and only have the ‘plan’.  An inexperienced current operations team can butcher a good plan, but a well-drilled and experienced current operations team can save a bad plan. Operations teams, then, need more training and experience for when it all goes wrong.  There is currently no way for units to know if the outcome is due to the quality of the plan or the quality of the execution.

One Version of Reality

After action reviews normally take one of two formats.  The first is a group discussion.  These discussions are usually dominated by the most vocal team members with a linear view of the action.  The second is a series of smaller working groups, which attempt to get a wider collection of points from a more diverse pool.  Both formats invariably end up as an analysis of ‘why did we make the decisions we did and what lessons can we take away from the consequences’.  Both approaches lack diversity of ideas and are fixed in personal biases.

As this approach looks at how the action unfolded and why, there is no way to analyse whether or not the specific decisions that were made were the best decisions for that situation.  This is because once a decision is made and action is taken, that unit is creating the one path of reality.  There is no scope to explore alternative future realities and this limits the staff ability to experiment and learn from failure.  The ‘improve’ points generated might have been the best actions for the situation.  By the same logic, they may not be.  Current training design does not allow the staff to actually know if they should ‘sustain’ the lessons identified if there is no comparison against which to assess the relative merits.  This approach lacks both data and intellectual rigour.

Feedback Loops

There are some stark contrasts between military and civilian learning theories.  Civilian structures actively look for faster feedback loops and opportunities to repeat practises.  For example, Eric Ries opines that an organisation should ‘always choose the option that minimises the total time through the feedback loop. In other words, any change that accelerates learning is a win, and everything else is waste.’

The feedback that military training audiences receives during an AAR is either an internal introspection (as units discuss their opinions), or external subjective feedback (with some stats, e.g. vehicles destroyed) bolted on from the observer/mentors.  Both modes of feedback will have been shaped by those individuals’ experiences and biases.  The key point is that the military would benefit from training design that allows units to repeat scenarios.

Reps, Reps, Reps

It is well-known that repetition and purposeful practice hones performance through iterative development and compounding knowledge.  In order to best exploit this, there needs be a format of training where more decisions can be made and a system in which those decisions and actions can be judged and compared.  The British Army currently has a good model of training in so far as it allows free play ‘fighting’ either deployed in the field or through simulation.

The Royal Navy Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) routinely sees peer on peer training. Though, naval writers in the Wavell Room are arguing for reform. “John Dorey” questions “how do we encourage the consideration of tactics today?” This is especially pertinent if operators have no way of rewinding to try different tactical decisions. In these scenarios there is only ever one outcome to analyse and this limits the utility of the AAR process.  There is no way to understand what is good and what is bad.  

These training systems are good because they create friction and unpredictable dilemmas in which to test military operators. Yet, others have pointed out that British formations ‘rarely lose‘. If we don’t fail, then have we even tried?

One example from industry that demonstrates iterative improvement is Sir James Dyson’s approach to product development.  Dyson altered the design of his vacuum cleaner 5,127 times through experimentation and comparison before it was released to market.  Our execution teams run through one sequence of missions in a linear manner several times a year.  This is not enough to inculcate good practise and hone the skills needed.  Either more time needs to be given to the execution of missions to put those in current operations through the necessary iterations and frictions, or there needs to be an alteration in training design to maximise the reps.

What can we do about it?

Change training design. 

The Army has acknowledged the requirement for more execution, but it has moved in this direction cheaply and slowly.  For example, the Camberley Kreigspeil wargame offers a method of training the execution team.  Yet despite stemming from a brilliant idea, to find a cheaper way to execute, the game is confusing and unintuitive.  Worse, Army culture has yet to invest sufficient time into it.  More must be done if wargaming is to survive, let alone thrive.

There are better systems already in place, which can be used to simulate tactical actions and generate different scenarios.  The benefits of electronic systems is that they are easier to use and they already exist across the Army’s infrastructure.

Whatever system is used, training design must be changed to enable more reps.  Both systems should be used like a chess player honing their skills.  Chess players can set up boards of famous matches and play them out considering the decisions required.  Instead of seeing training as a linear model, the chess board can be reset to allow a different decision.  This enables comparison. 

Execution training should expose the current operations cells to decision-making stressors and force them from the plan.  To do this, this article recommends that the Army must amend how it runs training exercises and focus on maximising decision-making opportunities, over getting exercising troops into a realistic battle rhythm.  The benefits of field (or sea, or air) training, as Steve B argues, are significant; but we should not lose focus on what we need to train.  The ability of operations teams to control a plan, not necessarily to operate in the cold.

A benefit of a type of staff training is that creates more decisions and thus more feedback.  This provides valuable data output that can be harvested, interrogated, and fed back.  In turn, this increases realism and can be used to challenge current assumptions.  This could be enabled with DSTL’s Military Analysts for example or it could deepen the pool of information that a future artificial intelligence could use. 

Focusing on decision making

Currently, command post exercises require the current operations team to track the battle rhythm reports and returns, (which, incidentally, are much more suited to counter insurgency operations than warfighting) as well as fighting the enemy.  There is little focus on decision-making.  Acknowledging that reports and returns are an important part of administrative routine, there are more important things the current operations team need to train.

A focus on decision making would see current operations cells put under stress by conducting two or three iterations of the same scenarios.  This would allow the current operations to make slightly different decisions along the way and test different methods.  The plan would remain the same, but the various decision points throughout could be explored.  This would result in a wealth of information to analyse and compare.  Reps, reps, reps.

To use a real-life example: Sport. From grassroots to the elite level sports teams play training matches in which they run through their moves and different patterns of play.  The coaches will pause when they wish to discuss an individual’s decision or when they want to show everyone the bigger picture, the shape of the team, or to explain opportunities or threats.  They often send the ball back two or three phases to restart the action and to address the coach’s point.   Imagine this level of replay and the value it could bring to an execution team.

To achieve this would take more exercise planning and engaged higher and lower command cells to speed up the reset.  Yet, with the right system in place, exercises can be fast-forwarded through mundane routine to focus on critical areas and decision-making.  This would be mutually beneficial as the red forces would also benefit from more focused decision making training.

Diversity of thought

Diversity is critical to this process. I don’t mean in skin colour, gender, or religion.  Rather, the bottom-up structure of the Defence means all officers attend the same educational courses and have similar military experiences.  Bar minor background differences and those who have, perhaps, worked for another nation’s military during their service, we all think the same.  If we add a conservative, risk averse, and overly centralised culture to this mix then defence has a problem. It takes a very good leader to ensure that all the minds in group are being best used rather than people deferring to power and status.  Groupthink and confirmation bias are a very real problem for decision-making.

One possible way of diversifying a unit’s thinking would be to invite a staff officer from a different nation into the training serial.  This could even be extended to invite suitable ‘wild card’ observers to assist with reviews and training methodology.  A sports coach, an academic, a local Councillor, someone with enough knowledge to form an opinion about training and challenge thinking.  They could offer independent input and could even be asked to make one of the decisions so as to assess the different pros and cons. 


Defence must use its limited time better to practice the execution of operations.  Staff training serials are not maximised to enable units to make more decisions and to experiment.  There is a focus on a liner mission over the required training.  There needs to be a greater focus on staff execution training, honing the current operation. This is best achieved though iterative, incremental, changes to training design with more objective, feedback.  Operators must wholeheartedly adopt the belief that it is OK to fail and learn through mistakes AND design training that allows it to happen.  In its current form, however, the Army lacks a method to replay mistakes and actively learn from them.  This would be made possible by improving our training practices and mind-set, focussing on feedback, mission design, and increasing diversity of thought.  By testing some of these suggested changes, units may be able to experiment and train to failure. More reps would enable more creative decision making, and explore more diverse avenues than training currently allows us to do.

Cover photo; British and American troops co-ordinate movements in a command post on Allied Spirit in Hohenfels, Germany. Photo used under Creative Commons licence from 7th Army Training Command / NATO.

Anthony Kirkham

Anthony is an officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment. He has served at regimental duty,  instructed at the Infantry Battle School, Brecon, and been a staff officer with Headquarters 16 (Air Assault) Brigade.


  1. the “end” or “culmination” of a military exercise
  2. Tactical Exercise Without Troops; a training activity that practices planning but without “troops on the ground” or a Planning Exercise Not Involving Soldiers for others.

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