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What can we learn from the Army's mission planning tool?

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As a part-time Army Officer and full-time Project Manager, I have spent years juggling the demands of both worlds. While this is a challenging balance (leaving me with very little spare time), it also has its benefits. For instance, my military background allows me to bring a unique perspective to my work as a Project Manager.

So, I’ve decided to share all that I know, focussing specifically on the value we can glean as Project Managers from military planning practices.

One thing the Army and wider military are known for is planning, and for good reason. The Army has a tried and tested tool for mission planning known as the Combat Estimate, comprising of seven ‘questions’ that are designed to be considered in a specific order.

By answering these questions, you can create an actionable plan that addresses different aspects of any given problem. The seven questions of Combat Estimate are as follows:

  1. What is the situation and how does it affect me?
  2. What have I been told to do and why?
  3. What effects do I need to achieve and what direction must I give to develop the plan?
  4. Where and how can I best accomplish each action or effect?
  5. What resources are needed to accomplish each action or effect?
  6. When and where do the actions take place in relation to each other?
  7. What control measures do I need to impose?

In this blog series, we'll explore how the general principles behind the Combat Estimate can be applied to project management to aid best practices. This first post will focus on question one of the Combat Estimate.

Question one: What is the situation and how does it affect me?

We start with a step backwards, or what’s popularly known in the Army as the ‘condor moment’ - that moment of calm contemplation where you take a step back, light up a cigar, and assess the situation at hand (or at least, that's how the old campaign goes). The idea here is to capture that calm before things get busy and hectic.

This first step is a thorough examination of the context surrounding your mission (or project), including everything from the physical environment to the enemy's capabilities and tactics, and even socio-political factors that may impact your mission. It's like a puzzle - you need to gather all the pieces before thinking of how you’ll put them together in a plan.

But the goal of this step extends beyond just understanding the context. It's about identifying key factors, deducing their impact and deciding on a corresponding action.

Let’s run through an example. You’re managing a project seeking to implement a new customer relationship management (CRM) system across your organisation. However, the UK Government introduces a new Bill during your planning phase proposing change to data protection laws. So, what’s the implication? How are you going to respond? Such analysis can be achieved through applying the ‘Three Column Format’ (or 3CF), demonstrated below:

3CF Table

The 3CF is a powerful tool, enabling thought and action to flow naturally from a factor, leaving you with a list of actions that can be later incorporated into your plan.

Overall, the goal is to fully understand the situation to enable planning. It starts by taking a step back to gather information, assess potential risks and decide upon key actions. By doing this, you can make more informed decisions and avoid basing your plan solely on instinct or experience. It's a crucial step that sets the foundation for a solid and effective plan.

So, what are the key takeaways for project managers?

  • Start by taking a step back. Take time to analyse the project context before creating your plan. Tools such as PESTLE, VUCA, and SWOT can be used to help organise and structure your thinking.
  • Ask yourself “so what?” to explore the implication of a factor, even if the answer seems simple. It’ll help drive home the relevance and importance of the factor, before deciding how you’re going to act.
  • Finally, use the 3CF to transform a list of daunting factors into simple, precise actions (which can be taken forwards into your plan).

Stay tuned for the next instalment in this series, where we'll delve into the second question of the Combat Estimate: What have I been told to do and why?

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