The Operations Officer Trap

Falling in Love with the Plan

What is the worst trap an operations officer can fall into? From my perspective, it is falling in love with the plan. Anyone who has been an S3, planner, or action officer knows the emotion that I am describing here. It occurs in the moment when someone attempts to provide constructive comments, and you take the side of “the plan” instead of listening to their perspective. You instinctively shield “the plan” like a protective parent sheltering their child from the rain. After years of planning all kinds of things, I still find myself falling into this trap from time to time. Here are three thoughts to help with perspective in planning:

Pilots from 2nd Battalion (Assault), 2nd Aviation Regiment and 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, flew in more than 300 Republic of Korea and U.S. Marines, on 25 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for an air assault, March 13, 2014, on the multipurpose range complex.

March 13, 2014 – Photo courtesy of Christopher Bodin

  1. The plan is always wrong. You may be able to make create something that looks good on paper, but you can’t control how the plan is interpreted, disseminated, and implemented. In this context, there is no such thing as a good plan, much less a perfect one. If plans are always flawed, then why do we do it? Planning is not an end state, but rather a process to build shared understanding (across the staff, between the staff and the commander, across the command). Accepting that the plan is inherently flawed makes it easier to accept team creativity.   
  2. Creative inclusion fosters emergent properties. In systems theory, emergence is a phenomenon where the uncontrolled interaction between smaller parts leads to an unforeseen emergent property. Overlay the principles of mission command – the interaction between company commanders and the Brigade Commander’s intent allows a Battalion to seize the initiative by exploiting an unforeseen opportunity when they find a gap in the enemy’s defensive position. This may not have been in precisely written in the plan, nor could you have predicted how conditions would unfold in combat. The plan is less about forecasting conditions and more about creating the space for others to generate options.  
  3. It isn’t your plan. Say it with me this time – it isn’t your plan. This seems intuitive, but ownership can become detrimental if it limits your view of the big picture. Most obviously, operations officers and planners aren’t commanders. Regardless of how much work you put into it, there is a commander out there who owns the intent and risk. The commander is usually less vested in the plan and listens closely to subordinate feedback. This perspective allows commanders to unemotionally weigh outside information. Additionally, subordinate commands “buy” a portion of the plan when you issue the order. Good organizations provide early feedback during the parallel planning timeline, attempting to influence planning efforts. Subordinate input to the plan provides granular feedback from an external agent vested in your organization’s success.

Hopefully, these points will help provide context the next time you fall in love with your own ideas. Great plans are less important than great planning, where team collaborate and create shared understanding.

Looking for more on improving yourself as an organizational leader? Look here!


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “The Operations Officer Trap

  1. That’s a great article. Thanks. It’s blindingly obvious once you read it, but not at all intuitive until you do.

  2. A plan is simply a framework to begin deviating from. If we envision and build a capability based on a particular threat/ scenario, we can adjust far more rapidly to the real world event when it happens than we would otherwise be able to do if there was no baseline.

  3. But Hannibal Smith ‘loves it when a plan comes together!’ – so plans must work out sometimes- surely?
    In all seriousness not all plans are flawed and planning should aim for much more than creating a shared awareness. The art is in identifying when the plan is failing or where the inherent point of failure is. When this situation occurs, which I’ll admit is more often than not, it is not about planning it is about ‘execution’.
    I believe personal attachment to a plan is bred into young leaders as part of training systems – the challenge is managing training to failure so that it breeds success. This is something I have rarely seen achieved.

Comments are closed.