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Understanding your project mission: what to achieve and why

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By now, you've hopefully become familiar with the Army's mission planning tool from my last blog. At the very least, you'll understand that it comprises seven questions and is widely used across the Army to plan missions of all shapes and sizes. 

This article will continue exploring the tool, aiming to identify key lessons for integration into our own project management practices. We'll continue this exploration by looking at Question 2, where we shift the focus to our own mission. 

But what does this actually mean, and how can it be applied to the project context? I will explain the steps of Question 2 below, exploring each one before identifying the key takeaways we can apply to the project planning process. 

So, grab yourself a coffee, find a comfortable chair, and ask yourself... 

Question 2: What have I been told to do and why? 

This question aims at developing a commander’s understanding of the role they play in achieving their higher commander’s desired outcome, whilst identifying the requisite action, and risk.  

This question has four clear sub-questions which aim to uncover the mission end state: 

  • What is the higher commander’s intent? 
  • What tasks have been specified or implied? 
  • What are my freedoms and constraints? 
  • How might the picture change and how might it affect me? 

We’ll unpack these below… 

What is the higher commander’s intent?  

This aims squarely at understanding what role a given mission might play within the ‘big picture’. Such analysis is achieved by ‘looking up’ at the chain of command to infer goals, priorities and wider objectives, therefore, providing the commander with a grasp of how their mission feeds into the wider picture.  

Fundamentally, this gives commanders the ‘why’ of what they’re setting out to achieve; a key component of morale in any context (just ask Simon Sinek). 

What tasks have been specified or implied?  

The Army prides itself on the application of ‘mission command’ – a command philosophy exercising decentralised command, where decision-making is delegated to the lowest possible level.  

Practically speaking, this philosophy translates to open and broad ‘mission statements’ – commanders are told to achieve an effect on a target. They are told why, but not how. 

Therefore, the onus is placed on the individual to analyse their mission to distil the specific tasks required to achieve the outcome, as well as the enabling action required to facilitate. The end state is a list of tasks necessary to achieve the given mission to be incorporated into a detailed plan later on in the process. 

What are my freedoms and constraints?  

Mission command applies here too, with ‘freedom of action’ being the underlying assumption to mission planning. A commander has freedom to execute the mission in whatever way they want, unless blocked by a constraint. From my experience, this is the best aspect of mission command. It’s a beautiful philosophy of trust and controlled freedom, enabling creative and free action. 

As such, this step asks commanders to identify their freedoms and specific constraints with regards to components such as time, space and resources that will shape their future plans, setting the scene for plan making later on in the combat estimate (which we’ll explore in later blogs). 

How might the picture change and how might it affect me? 

A commander should have a good grasp of the situation by this stage. But things change. The enemy may move. The weather might close in. Higher command priorities might even shift. As such, the final piece of the Question 2 puzzle is to anticipate such change and plan appropriate mitigation. 

This is risk management by another name. The commander brainstorms key risks facing the mission here, assessing their impact and planning mitigation, all before detailed plans are made later on in the process. 

That’s a wrap on Question 2. So, what are the key takeaways for project managers? 

  • Take time to analyse the ‘why’ of your project. Taking time to step back and assess how your project serves higher organisational needs enables your understanding of the project’s purpose and ultimately, how important it is to your organisation. Such detail may exist within your business case, but have you taken the time to explore your organisation’s wider priorities with a view to understanding how your project does (or doesn’t) feed into these? 
  • Apply mission command to empower your team. Mission command is the driving philosophy for military planning and execution. Its use takes practice and the application of appropriate constraints and boundaries to shape action, but the outcome is an empowered team who fully own their tasks. The key to mission command is specifying what to achieve and why, leaving your team to decide how to achieve it. 
  • Use the principles of Question 2 to understand the end state. Ultimately, completing Question 2 will enable you to visualise ‘what success looks like’. By taking time to analyse the mission, you will further understand the intended outcome and whether it’s achievable with your given time and resources. 

Thanks for reading. Blog 3 will continue the journey into the combat estimate, focussing on Question 3: What effects do I need to achieve and what direction must I give to develop the plan? This is the first actual step in plan making now that Questions 1 and 2 have set the scene. I look forward to writing, and I hope you’re looking forward to reading. 

Read George’s other blogs in this series: What can we learn from the Army’s mission planning tool? 


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