Adaptable Mission Command Requires a Balance

I would further press that a mission command force must use these observational skills to better understand the true intent (as opposed to the stated intent, which may not be the same thing) of its adversaries.  A fish doesn’t try to turn a shark into a vegetarian—it accepts the risk of predation in the world—but it does use its observational experience to try to escape from the shark, trick the shark, or even form a partnership with a shark.  One of the most effective measures for reducing the IED threat in Iraq wasn’t better armor or jamming technologies, but forming symbiotic partnerships with local populations that generated greater numbers of tips about IEDs and IED makers. Understanding the intent of these populations—rather than assuming they could only be classified as an “enemy”–was essential in forming these partnerships.

Trust is fortunately deeply seeded in biology.  Essentially all organisms since the beginning of biological time needed systems for understanding what was like themselves and what was not like themselves.  All organisms have this “self/non-self” recognition system that lets them know who to trust.  For humans, this is codified in culture or “tribal identity”.  We often consider tribal identity as dangerous and conflict-generating, citing examples of militant religious identities and domestic terrorists.  We also consider tribal identity as enshrining stasis and adherence to outdated norms.  These are both biased readings of human evolutionary history, where tribal identity has overwhelmingly been a source of advancement and adaptability. The trust enshrined in tribal identity is what kept a naked and largely defenseless ape secure for most of our time on Earth and it continues to have a critical value today. The trust we place in members of our tribe give us the freedom to innovate and to take the risks to try new ways of living.


A key aspect of mission command is balance—as General Dempsey states, “understanding…must flow from both bottom-up and top-down”.  Biological organisms are neither completely decentralized nor centralized in their approach to problem solving.  Decentralized observers and responders are essential to get a localized and high tempo reading of the challenge at hand.  Centralized command, in parallel, carries key functions which include having a globalized and contextual sense of the local challenge, providing resources to support those charged with meeting the challenge, and providing a means for reproducing successful solutions.  Through natural selection, organisms like the octopus have arrived organically at this balance. Bringing this balance to present day human command structures—which are overwhelmingly centralized–will likely require leadership to relinquish some control.  General Dempsey provided some specific illustrations on how this might be accomplished in the training environment—by incorporating uncertainty, imperfect information, and the need to delegate.

These same characteristics can be generated in all operations of a future force through the process of challenge-based problem solving.  Challenges, as opposed to “orders”, put the onus of finding the best solution on decentralized agents.  A challenge that is well-tuned to the operational environment (understanding) and well-articulated (intent) will almost always yield faster, cheaper, and more effective results than a centralized mandate.  Of course, relinquishing controlled planning to the unknown and unpredictable outcomes of a challenge requires commanders to utilize the last attribute of mission command—trust.  Trust in the subordinate challenge solvers and trust in the system of challenge-based problem solving.  The former can only be generated through relationship-building. As for the latter, there are now dozens of case studies from many complex environments of successful challenge-based problem solving—from DARPA’s “Grand Challenges” to biological challenges to identify novel protein conformations (issued in the form of a multi-player online video game)—which reveal empirically the power of trusting decentralized problem solvers enough to get the job done.

As General Dempsey stated, the basic principles of mission command are not new concepts.  Indeed, they are billions of years old.  The challenge is to implement them throughout the Joint Force.  Lessons from the massive case study database of nature can inform this implementation at every level.

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