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The Top 10 Lessons I Relearned
as a Sustainment Brigade Planner

MDMP—the military decisionmaking process. For most Soldiers, this acronym sends a shudder down even the strongest of spines and is almost as despised as vegetables are to a small child. But I am a planner—not a designation that many people will voluntarily admit to out loud—and MDMP is the cornerstone of what I do. So, when I learned that I was being assigned as the Chief of Plans for the 15th Sustainment Brigade during its Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 06–08 rotation, I felt confident that I knew what my job would entail and what my brigade commander would expect from me and the sustainment brigade plans shop over the next year. Little did I know that my knowledge toolkit—built over 15 years of plans assignments, logistics jobs, and deployment experiences—would get strewn all over the Iraqi desert when I arrived in country. I would have to reorganize and develop a new strategy for facilitating all of the nonstandard and unfamiliar mission requirements that were in our purview.

Planning logistics support in conjunction with the many levels of headquarters in Baghdad was a challenge comparable to the day-to-day changes that occurred in the summer of 1995 as the 1st Armored Division planned its deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just as the task, purpose, force structure, and unit movements were constantly in flux for the Implementation Force (IFOR) mission, many surprises and last-minute modifications arose while supporting the OIF 06–08 Iraq rotation and Baghdad surge operations and while preparing for future force rotations. Determining unit locations and compositions, facilitating mission realignments, synchronizing transportation and commodities requirements, and managing and prioritizing multiple force structure requirements across three Multi-National Division-Iraq areas was an ongoing and exciting challenge. This was especially true when coupled with the need to remain tied to combat operations across multiple division boundaries in and around the Baghdad operational environment.

Transitioning from the “execution” focus required in my two previous key developmental jobs to the “planner” mentality needed in my OIF staff assignment required me to revisit and rapidly apply everything I had learned. From the many important “gems of wisdom” in my arsenal, I have selected a few that I found to be most critical to developing a successful planning team from scratch. These keys to success can be applied by anyone in a leadership or staff position because planning and the step-by-step thought process that it involves (no matter how abbreviated) is ingrained in everything that we do. Many of these tips may be considered “no brainers”—common sense approaches to getting a job done. However, they also are so simple that they can easily be overlooked or forgotten by even the most experienced warrior-leader. So, to assist you in your future endeavors, remember these 10 important steps.

10. Assess, teach, coach, mentor, and motivate your team. One of the challenges felt by many units going through transformation is resourcing personnel for new or transitioning headquarters. In the case of the 15th Sustainment Brigade, many of the plans shop positions were not filled until shortly before the unit’s deployment, limiting the training opportunities to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the team and to train as a section before we arrived in country. Yet, we needed to hit the ground running and adjust our organization as the skills and capabilities of each person became evident. The team’s overall success depended on everyone working together and contributing equally to the mission at hand. Setting priorities, standards, and expectations up front ensured that everyone knew what his responsibilities were. Since the strength of most military occupational specialties within the shop was only one-deep, each Soldier was responsible for cross-training the rest of the section in his area of expertise to ensure that the shop could develop products in his absence. This improved everyone’s briefing abilities, increased confidence in each other’s technical skills, and built a cohesive esprit de corps in the shop.

9. Go back to the basics. For a planner, the trinity of products making up the MDMP—mission analysis, course-of-action development, and decision briefings—must be kept in a place of importance in everyday business. Even if only applied in the abbreviated form, MDMP is a mindset, a thought process, and a path that leads a planner through a problem step by step, ensuring that all critical points are covered or selectively weeded out. Therefore, it is critical to train everyone in the shop on planning doctrine, specifically the MDMP, in order to ensure a baseline standard for all future analyses. Since the plans shop has only one authorized battlestaff slot, the training plan must have the goal of making all plans shop personnel comfortable in applying MDMP concepts so that they can hone their skills during predeployment preparations. We validated the need to understand the MDMP because, many times during our deployment, the plans shop analyzed multiple complex issues simultaneously. This would have been a daunting task if we had not taken the time to conduct MDMP training as soon as we came together as a team.

8. Learn who the key players are, take time to meet them, and stay in contact.
Synchronizing logistics to support a combat operation can only be accomplished through open and frequent discussion with other planners and logisticians at all echelons. When put into a new operational environment, I strongly advocate taking time to conduct a face-to-face meeting with your planner counterparts. Putting a face to a name creates a more cooperative work environment. It also makes it more difficult for someone to say “no” to you. Phone calls, email conversations, shared briefings, and information “sanity checks” with the staffs of supported headquarters, our higher headquarters, our sister sustainment brigades, and our six subordinate battalions were daily occurrences for the 15th Sustainment Brigade plans staff. You must serve as the logistics “ambassador” to pass unit requests and requirements, tactfully ensure that issues are raised to the proper levels, and ensure that the lines of communication remain open. Ensuring cooperation and maintaining good working relationships among headquarters are always preferable, especially when planning in a combat zone.

7. Know (and show) your references and sources of information. Establishing the credibility of a plans shop depends not only on presenting a professional-looking product but also on backing up your recommendations with well-thought-out analysis and validated data from reliable sources, not just quotes from the most popular of the “pronoun people” better known as “they.” The products that you create not only will serve to guide current sustainment operations but also will be valuable reference tools for future rotations.

When the 15th Sustainment Brigade arrived in Iraq, many briefings and products from previous rotations were handed down to the plans shop during our transition. However, in many cases, we were unable to decipher the “why” behind the analysis and the final recommendations because we had no understanding of the initial guidance given. A fragmentary order (FRAGO), the written translation of mission planning, immediately lays out the references that were used to develop the plan. So, why would you not include something similar as part of any briefing or product that your shop creates? When in doubt, ask the planner to “show me the ‘reg’ on that!”

6. Maximize the use of the enablers that you control. Just as combat brigades receive additional special skills forces and equipment to assist in conducting their missions, a plans shop is also given tools to accomplish its tasks. As a planner, the most critical enablers that you directly influence are the minds of the planning staff—the nontangible skills and expertise of the Soldiers working for you. You must ensure that they apply their current knowledge to make the team’s products the best possible, while at the same time challenging them to think outside the box and expand their abilities in less familiar areas.

The physical enablers within the plans shop are the unclassified and classified computers. Although considered “standard issue” items and an irritation to many in the field, your computers are an important and powerful weapon when your Soldiers know how to employ the systems’ many functions. In the current electronic environment, data management skills are a definite requirement in maintaining your sanity as a planner. Common office programs, such as Internet search engines, spreadsheet and slide presentation software, and logistics estimate calculators, are used daily and serve to help you present a well-researched, clear, and concise product.

5. Products must “speak” for themselves. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and, in the course of creating a presentation or briefing, you must be a master artisan in the art of digital communication. A planner’s ability to fluidly depict his data, thought processes, and the rationale behind a recommendation is a critical key to success. The audience must be able to quickly understand the data in its final presentation. Each slide should be able to stand on its own and answer more questions than it makes the viewer ask. It does not matter how much great information you may have if it does not make sense to anybody else. And always remember to KISS—keep it simple, Soldier!

4. Creativity and common sense must be in the forefront of everything you do.
Annually, the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, turns out a graduating class of officers trained on a curriculum that, as stated in the school website, focuses on “the military art and science of planning, preparing, and executing full spectrum operations.” The rest of us develop our skills in the school of hard knocks, otherwise known as “on-the-job training.” Yet, regardless of where you have cut your planning teeth, it is crucial to remember that your analysis must still be based on current doctrine with an additional element of creative solutions to the problem set. Many times, a standard, cookie-cutter solution will not work, especially in a complex operating environment such as Baghdad. It takes imagination, inspiration, ingenuity, and a planner’s own resourcefulness and street smarts to come up with a vision that can be executed. And remember: Just because someone is not doing it the way you would, does not mean they are doing it wrong; they just have different experiences and perspectives that they are drawing from to facilitate a solution.

3. Be flexible, and accept that every day will bring new challenges.
Each day in Iraq brought fresh requirements and missions that I had never imagined a plans shop would face. For example, I have learned more than I ever thought possible about human resources and finance transformation, which are new sustainment functions. From a more standard perspective, the planning section’s missions involved tracking the ongoing combat force structure and battlespace realignments; constructing and sustaining joint security stations, combat outposts, contingency operating bases, and forward operating bases; providing crisis management for DUSTWUN [detained U.S. troop(s), whereabouts unknown] and other recovery operations; reacting to interdiction of lines of communication on the routes and bridges in and around Baghdad; and conducting a force structure analysis to determine requirements for future logistics force rotations.

Understanding the Army’s modular force structure suddenly becomes personal when the plans shop must determine how to resource capabilities with units on vastly different rotational schedules and correctly apply the rules of deployment and employment for each unit’s component of service. And the planners must do all of this with the full understanding that the requirements will change again tomorrow. So, the planner must constantly remain in tune with the higher and supported headquarters’ direction forward and be a willing participant in late night sessions of gazing into a crystal ball, cracking open a few fortune cookies, and loudly reciting the planner’s motto: “Semper Gumby!”

2. The only stupid questions are those you do not ask. Do not let your pride get in the way of self-improvement or producing the best product possible. Asking well-thought-out questions gives you the opportunity to revisit or get clarification on the expected standard or on command guidance. Asking questions is also a way for you as a planner to get others thinking about the “why” and the second and third order effects of a problem or solution to a situation. It also provides subordinates with a low-threat opportunity to also ask for further guidance. So often the solution to a problem is staring you in the face, but either you are too close to the issue to see the solution or too fixated on how a problem was solved previously to come up with alternative solutions. Asking questions exposes any misunderstanding of requirements, improves your staff’s abilities to evaluate issues, and guides them to more realistic expectations for a final product.

1. Every day, ask yourself what it is I can do that will contribute. Fifteen years ago, in my first assignment with the 1st Armored Division, I had the pleasure of working closely with Brigadier General John VanAlstyne, who was our assistant division commander for support. During his farewell luncheon, he gave us his thoughts about military service as well as a view of combat service support from a combat arms perspective. He closed his comments with this challenge that applies to all of us, regardless of branch: Be committed as a Soldier to making a difference in other peoples’ lives, to the Army, and to the world every day. As a planner, your contribution to the fight is behind the scenes and will never be as overt as the actions of Soldiers out on the battlefield. Yet, what you accomplish daily and the products you create are no less valuable to the overall success of your unit and the mission at hand. It is the internal recognition of this accomplishment that will bring you a sense of personal and professional satisfaction at the end of the day after performing what is generally considered a thankless job.

Planning for combat and sustainment operations is serious business. Combat forces may be the “tip of the spear,” but, as a planner, you are the warrior who aims where it will strike. In the words of Mao Tse-tung, “Since ‘preparedness ensures success and unpreparedness spells failure,’ there can be no victory in war without advance planning and preparations.” However, in the ever-fluctuating, socially and geopolitically sensitive environment of Iraq, few plans have been executed exactly as originally written and some have never been put into motion because the perfect time and conditions for action never materialized. So, perhaps General George S. Patton, Jr., said it best: “. . . a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”

My goal in presenting these lessons “relearned” has been to provide another perspective from the forward foxhole on conducting business in your area of expertise, thus helping you bring your Soldiers together as a cohesive planning team and offering a new paradigm for creative problem-solving Army-style. In this world of contingency planning, there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened. As an Army planner, which one will you be?

Major Gabriella M. Pasek is the Chief of Plans for the 15th Sustainment Brigade. She holds a B.A. degree in natural sciences and behavioral bio-logy from Johns Hopkins University and an M.S. degree in strategic intelligence from the National Defense Intelligence College. She is a graduate of the Army Medical Department Officer Basic and Advanced Courses and the Army Command and General Staff College.