The 'Directed COA' and Recognition-Primed Decision-Making
There has been much discussion, but surprisingly little written on the topic of the 'directed course of action (COA)' in combined arms operations in a decisive action environment. Commonly maligned in staff after-action reviews, 'the directed COA' is often viewed as the point of failure for plans that prove insufficiently flexible when the enemy commits to an unanticipated course of action. Tactical formations 'fighting the plan' rather than the enemy frequently find themselves surprised and often decisively engaged in a fight on the enemy's terms. As a result, many come to the conclusion that directed COAs, so seemingly in conflict with US Army planning methodologies, are a thing that commanders and their staffs best avoid. Is this conclusion valid? What might explain this phenomena? Why and how do commanders arrive at these directed courses of action and why do some formations that plan and execute them often experience failure? In his book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, cognitive psychologist Gary Klein offers insights worthy of further consideration.
In a study funded by the US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral Social Sciences, Klein and his colleagues conducted research in order to better understand naturalistic decision-making (NDM), or the way in which experts leverage their experience to make decisions in the field. Leaders engaged in NDM operate in an environment that is often time-constrained, ambiguous, and in which the cost of failure is high. Prior to Klein's research, many believed that decision-making in such environments followed rational choice strategies and employed a comparative evaluation process. Tactical leaders that understand the Army's tactical planning methodology will immediately recognize parallels between the steps of rational choice strategy and the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP).
Yet attempts to study naturalistic decision-making through the lens of rational choice strategies proved problematic. In Sources of Power, Klein relates the studies of Peer Soelberg, who found that even decision-makers that had previously learned the steps to rational choice strategies did not it use in decision-making. Klein's observations of firefighter commanders yielded similar conclusions. Presented with this Klein became puzzled: "But where were the decisions? The commander sees a fire and knows just what to do. But in an instant, that decision is negated because the fire has spread. He still knows just what to do in this changed situation. He never seems to decide anything. He is not comparing a favorite option to another option... he is not comparing anything."
Klein's observations would not seem unusual to observers of experienced tactical leaders in training exercises. In assessing the situation, maneuver commanders often direct the formation into action in accordance with how he visualizes the operation taking shape. As he gains additional understanding and assesses emerging opportunities or threats on the battlefield, he takes action and describes refinements to his approach or directs the allocation of combat power accordingly. Interestingly, both tactical commanders and the decision-makers in Klein's studies tend to employ a singular evaluation approach, weighing potential courses of action on their individual merits rather than comparing from among several choices. In other words, once the decision maker arrives at a potential course of action that is feasible, acceptable, and suitable, he puts it into action, not taking the time to compare against a host of other distinguishable courses of action.
Klein calls this process recognition-primed decision-making (RPD), based on the decision maker's process of evaluating the situation until they detect aspects that are familiar to that of previous experiences. Once they have 'recognized' a situation as typical or familiar, expert decision-makers are able to intuitively recognize what end states are attainable, what cues to focus on, and what solutions are suitable for solving the problem at hand. Sufficient experience necessary to develop this expert intuition and recognize patterns on the battlefield is essential to RPD. Simply put, experts do not typically employ rational choice strategies when making decisions in the field. The 'directed COA' appears to be a natural product of the commander's naturalistic decision-making.
This conflicts with the structured approach of our Army's primary tactical planning methodology, MDMP. The expert decision-makers in Klein's research rarely used rational choice strategies. During Soelberg's studies, not only did decision-makers not follow the rational choice strategy, but also, having made an intuitive choice, leveraged the comparative evaluation process to construct a justification for their selection. In his recent AR Magazine article, "Making Reconnaissance Guidance Say What You Think," CPT Luke Bowers discusses an observation of a similar behavior, stating: "Many commanders [and staffs], especially in a time-constrained environment, will rapidly develop a COA by simply adding a doctrinal template and graphic control measures to their map and graphics. The enemy icons are templated in a manner that supports the friendly plan."
Nor do many decision-makers employ rational choice strategies when time is not a pressing concern. Klein states that "Recognition-primed decision making predominates even when time is sufficient for comparative evaluations." Klein's own comments on the Army's process is perhaps telling. He states that, "The Army has a doctrine about how decisions should be made, but it seemed that Soldiers did not usually follow the doctrine." The singular evaluation approach or RDP more closely aligns with the Army's Rapid Decision-Making and Synchronization Process (RDSP), a process in which many battalion- and brigade-level headquarters rarely employ and currently lack proficiency.
None of this is to say that rational choice strategies are not valuable. Klein points out that they serve as valuable aids to inexperienced decision-makers and for atypical or unfamiliar situations. Yet he cautions against the use of formal decision-making processes, as decision-makers rarely use them in practice. Further, he asserts that training in formal methods of analysis risks hindering the development of decision-making skills. Instead, he posits that we should seek to improve in decision-makers the ability to make rapid decisions, and, with sufficient repetition, increase their ability to detect familiar patterns essential to recognition-primed decision-making. To the tactical leader, this advice is unsettling given the limited opportunities for home-station training above the platoon- and company-level in today's operating environment. Without sufficient repetition to develop understanding of those patterns likely to exist on the modern battlefield, use of 'expert intuition' is likely to prove problematic. Simulations, terrain walks, and tactical decision exercises offer potential for bridging the experience gap, but cannot serve as a substitute for actual experience and field training.
Two additional aspects of recognition-primed decision-making merit further consideration when discussing the 'directed COA.' First, RPD, due to the nature of it's singular evaluation approach, only provides for the development of courses of action that the decision-maker believes has a reasonable chance of success. It does not provide for an 'optimal' course of action, selected from among many potential plans. Though it is unrealistic to expect military leaders to determine and carry out the optimal solution to a tactical problem, it is important to recognize that the difference in quality between a 'good enough' COA and the optimal COA is likely not only the success or failure of the operation, but also the cost in Soldiers' lives lost during its execution. While committing to a course of action that has a reasonable chance of success is acceptable in combat, we should always seek improvement in our tactical decision-making in training. Second, it is important to reiterate that experience serves as the basis for recognition-based decision-making. Without experience, decision-makers have little to fall back on in order to recognize the situation and visualize a potential course of action to achieve his desired end state.
Understanding recognition-primed decision-making allows tactical leaders to appreciate the strengths and limitations of the ‘directed course of action.’ Though this understanding is unlikely to solve hotly-debated problems associated with naturalistic decision-making on the modern battlefield, it should serve to ensure that future debate and discussion on the matter is better informed.