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The Army Poses 7 Questions - Can Business Try It?

One of the major fundamentals of the doctrinal training of commanders in the British Army is what is known as The Combat Estimate. The Combat Estimate, when applied to a situation, provides a systematic mechanism with which to shake out a plan as a response to a situation framed within a given set of requirements. The application of the 7 questions as a planning tool ensures that all of the influencing factors which are pertinent to any situation are built into a plan which seeks to secure a given aim. That aim can be the storming of a well defended bunker, the destruction of an enemy fuel depot or indeed the organisation of a trip to the Alps to teach a group to ski. As is often the case with military doctrine, it is as applicable to a military situation as it is to a civilian one. Its value lies in its ability to systematically break down a complex environment in such a way as to methodically define the important influencing elements which are relevant to a particular aim. One may imagine that such martial thoroughness would be well placed in the business boardroom and one would be correct.

The Combat Estimate (7 Questions) is one of 3 methods that the British Army uses to parse complex sets of circumstances for the purpose of systematic analysis. The other two methods are called The Operational Estimate and The Tactical Estimate. Of the three, the Combat Estimate really comes into its own in situations where quick planning which seeks to exploit and maintain a high tempo adversarial advantage is required. It is therefore best applied at the tactical and operational level. Lets look at the questions in turn;

  1. What is the adversary doing and why and/or what situation do I face and why, and what effect do they have on me? This is a bit of a mouthful but it effectively requires examination of the broad constraints which will serve to hamper ones ability to complete an objective. The key takeaway from this question is "assess and prioritise" What is happening and how does it fit into my priorities?
  2. What have I been told to do and why? It's essential to have a detailed understanding of the rationale behind what makes this task something that needs to be done. Furthermore, an ability to put oneself into the shoes of those in positions of authority whether that is your supervisor and their supervisor or indeed the broader needs of the organisation or company on who's behalf you are acting is beneficial. Are your actions to be part of a larger master plan? It's essential to build up this broader picture not only to understand how your task fits into other efforts but also to understand its priority, its dependants or antecedents, and more interestingly, what support you may be able to expect as you define interested parties more broadly. This information is one of the key components in the toolbox of the manager and their ability to motivate those involved in accomplishing the task.
  3. What effects do I need to have on the adversary or situation and what direction must I give to develop the plan? It is essential that you clearly understand your task and the intermediate key staging points which lead to its achievement. This is not only for your own clarity of purpose but also and perhaps more importantly as a basis of your ability to direct others in the execution of your plan. Having a clear and well structured definition of your aim ensures that you maintain your own focus not to mention are well able to articulate this to others within your purview which results, one hopes, in their taking of ownership of the task.
  4. Where and how can I best accomplish each action or effect? It is important to understand the situation thoroughly through the application of the previous questions and their outputs. At this stage one seeks to identify key resources, their priority and how to maintain control of them. It also begins to be possible to identify some lower level courses of action which will serve to consolidate into the broader strategy. A thorough examination of this question should produce a prioritisation of component parts of the overall strategy as well as an outline of the steps necessary to achieve each of them.
  5. What resources are needed to accomplish each action or effect? At this stage a planner, armed with the structured output of question 4 can begin to examine the resource requirements of each strand of the broader plan. Their earlier prioritisation assists in the allocation of resource where contention exists ensuring that resource whether manpower or equipment is distributed most efficiently. At this stage it also becomes clear whether it is necessary to request further resources as a prerequisite for the plans success. This question reaches both up and down your own command chain in order to ensure that the correct organisational capability is allocated. It is also the ideal time to revisit the output of question 2 and ensure that efforts and requirements are properly matched.
  6. When and where do the actions take place in relation to each other? It is important at this stage to begin to develop ones understanding of the temporal dimension of the plan. In a military environment this ensures that where potential exists for there to be conflict in the achievement of each effect, it is dealt with. In the boardroom, it enables individual strands of a broader planning structure to avoid duplication of effort or indeed the need to revisit certain actions. A useful tool to use at this stage is a timeline/sync matrix which provides a visual representation of the dependencies and outputs of each component part. A simple chart in the style of a Gantt chart is useful at this stage.
  7. What control measures to I need to impose? This question helps to define the boundaries of the plan as well as delineate the roles and responsibilities at a more granular level within the broader effort. By carefully examining this area we ensure that each of the component parts of our plan is equipped with the correct definition but also has sufficient scope of manoeuvre to flexibly respond to emergent conditions whilst keeping an eye on the end goal. By allocating an appropriate amount of responsibility one ensures that members of a team are able to utilise their own abilities to maximum effect in achieving the goal without stifling their latitude through unnecessary micro-management. In a business environment it is important to maintain awareness of budgetary limitations or perhaps cut-off dates.

The seven questions described above represent the systematic mechanism by which the military ensures that no facet of the overall planning landscape is overlooked. In military situations, such thoroughness is rewarded with minimising loss of life. Clearly it is therefore warranted however it is clear that business can benefit from such a structured approach to ensure the success of individual objectives up and down the chain of command. Throughout history civilian activity has embraced elements of military doctrine and procedure and will no doubt continue to do so. It is to be welcomed that the penalties in the business world very rarely extend to loss of life however where one seeks to do the best job possible with the resources available and in turn to minimise the chances of failure and their knock on effects, such thorough frameworks can clearly bring a great deal of value. Their application however piecemeal would seem to be a natural boon in the development of successful business practice in any field of operation.

Thanks for reading this post. It has been my pleasure to write it and I'd most certainly appreciate your feedback either by commenting on it in the comments section of my blog below or in the comments section on the platform you used to find it. I hope you also find some of my other posts on my blog of interest and am always happy to engage in discussion either online or offline in the development of these ideas. Happy planning.

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