The American View: Plan for the Worst and Focus on the Mission

The military runs on adages and aphorisms: “proper prior planning prevents [deleted] poor performance” is effectively doctrine. “If the enemy is in range, so are you” is a classic, right up there with “incoming fire has the right of way.” None of the great sayings, though, can top the all-time winner known as Murphy’s Law: “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” 

Supposedly attributed to an American military scientist in the 1940s, the phrase reflects soldiers’ sense of gallows humour; grunts have sworn by this principle for as long as there have been armies. Back when I was an officer cadet, our military science professors evangelized the need to embrace the unforgiving truth of Murphy’s Law into our hearts – and into our Operations Orders – because well thought out contingency planning will save soldiers’ lives. 

This came to mind last week as America responded to the 1/6 Capitol assault in the form of some 25,000+ National Guardsmen [1] deployed to Washington D.C. These troops were tasked to ensure any new batch of wannabe violent insurrectionists would receive a proper, historically accurate reception. [2] After the expected second attack didn’t manifest as predicted, news coverage turned – as it always does – to the whiff of potential political scandal. 

48 hours after President Biden’s Inauguration, multiple news sources alleged that on-duty Guardsmen on their rest breaks were shuffled out of the Capitol building to catnap in a nearby parking garage. Photos of soldiers sleeping on the Capitol floor were quickly replaced by shots of soldiers sleeping on a less comfortable garage floor. To quote this weekend’s AP news article:

“Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who leads a subcommittee that oversees the Capitol Police budget, said Pittman and other commanders would eventually need to testify about their decision-making. ‘If the Capitol Police in any way, shape, or form pushed the Guard out into a cold garage, then there’s going to be hell to pay,’ Ryan said.”

How’s about you channel your ire into explaining exactly how this mortifying and wholly unacceptable state of affairs ever came to pass, eh? Maybe address the root problems directly and hold the actual perpetrators accountable rather than raging about unrelated peripheral nuisances? No? Then leave me alone, I’m going back to sleep.

I shouldn’t have laughed at that but … Yeah. No disrespect to the esteemed representative. I appreciate the sentiment. It’s just … seriously, what do you think soldiering actually entails

First and foremost, getting permission to catnap during a long and boring guard shift is a gift for cold, hungry, and bored squaddies. Being able to put your head down for a few blissful minutes without a bellicose sergeant major screaming at you is divine… and this take is coming from an old squaddie who was taught by his drill sergeants how to sleep standing up in formation. 

Second, yeah. Car park floors suck to sleep on. So do the marble halls of the Capitol building. So do all cold, hard surfaces, especially when the lights are on and people are loudly going about their business inches from your head. I’ve half-dozed on armoury floors, in the corner of exam rooms, on stacks of duffle bags, on sidewalks, and on the floor of garages. You sleep wherever you can, with the kit you’ve got, in the time you’re given, and you make the best of it.

Hell, just getting to sleep indoors is a luxury compared to sleeping in the open. I spent one miserable Saturday night trying to sleep curled up in the footwell of jeep while mother nature pounded us with freezing rain. I was exhausted and miserable, but I couldn’t gripe about my situation: as the platoon medic, I was required to stay at the command post while the scouts were out practicing “relief in place” and “passage of lines” in the rain all weekend.

Videogames and movies LIE. This stuff isn’t fun. It isn’t exiting. Patrolling in freezing rain is utterly miserable. Don’t believe me? I’ll drive you to your nearest recruiter and swear you in. 

I’m not sharing these stories to put on “tough man” airs. Rather, I want to make it clear that soldiering is inherently arduous even when no one is trying to kill you. Squaddies are trained to endure and focus on the mission. It’s an essential element of Army culture: you make the best of it wherever you wind up, then joke about it afterwards to your civilian mates.

More to the point, it’s taken for granted in the ranks that Murphy’s Law is always in-play. It’s a matter of canon that the faster a mission has been thrown together, the less time there would have been to think up ways to mitigate all of the screwups that might make the job worse. 

Consider the context: what was the Capitol defence mission supposed to be? Striped down, the mission was to interpose a thick green line of disciplined, clear-headed squaddies between the expected horde of gibbering, ideologically intoxicated, armed lunatics and the elected officials that said lunatics intended to slaughter. Priority 1 was to prevent said slaughter form occurring. How? Eh, figure it out. Clear mission, clear objectives, chaotic situation. No problem. 

As for the details, well, those are was always going to be a cluster[bleep] given how little time there was to plan, prepare for, and practice the operation. In the U.S.A., the National Guard specializes in rapid emergency response operations, usually on short notice. The Guard will mobilise and help the community’s first responders sort everything by filling in the gaps. 

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, we deployed to NAS Belle Chase and slept on the flight line where the jets used to park … right next to the runway. All those cargo birds taking off and landing 50 metres from our cot lines wrecked my hearing for life. Then we deployed into New Orleans and squatted in an abandoned hospital while we improvised perform rescue, security patrols, and route clearance ops. We made it up as you we went along. Do the best we could with what we had, just to get the mission done. Then we went home and got ready to do it all again. 

Enlist to be a computer operator. Next thing you know, you’re getting trained how to rescue civilians from natural disasters. It’s a weird profession.  

There are two reasons why I wanted to bring this tempest-in-a-teapot story up. First, I get cranky when politicians use the Guard as props in their eternal hunger for publicity. Grandstanding about how “offended” they were when their state’s soldiers were forced to adapt after they hastily deployed the Guard into a frantic mess that should never have been necessary is disingenuous and kinda condescending. Let the soldiers’ commanders figure out what can and should have been done differently; that’s literally their job. The powers that be need to focus on figuring how why that initial crowd of armed loons was allowed to storm the Capitol building in the first place and why adequate defences weren’t in place to repulse them. Then commit to do better next time. 

Second, if we can go a bit sideways for a minute, businesspeople can learn a lot from how military plans and adapts. I’ve been involved in far too many corporate consulting jobs where the project managers assumed that every step of the engagement’s critical path would execute exactly as planned. They used a “physics problem universe” methodology; to hit the key performance goals, all workers would be completely qualified, fully rested, and highly motivated at all times. All equipment would perform exactly to specifications. Nothing would ever go wrong. If’ I’d ever tried to write a military operations order under those assumptions, I’d have been laughed out of the tent … and then given a few days of “latrine beautification” work to help me re-focus. 

Effective project management demands accepting that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Planning for anything less is a fool’s errand. I don’t get why so many MBAs and project managers seem averse to accepting the real world on its own terms. Again and again, well-meaning idealists with beautiful Gantt charts fail to craft the contingency plans and buffer spaces needed to recover from ops gone wrong and deadlines missed. I’ve rarely seen a project planner actually prepare for what might happen if key personnel miss a flight or if critical gear arrives on site broken. Successful operations demand if-then plotting and defensive redundancy. 

Effective project management also demands flexibility from leaders. Lots of times, hastily planned engagements require consultants on the ground to improvise, using what little they have to best effect. Sometimes, that means working long after “duty hours” and napping under their desk while gear gets unloaded or code compiles. Sometimes that means cross-training field techs to survive a pivotal player getting sick or abruptly resigning. Sometimes that means sending the team lead out with a corporate credit card and permission to feed, billet, or transport the team when required support doesn’t appear. Ultimately, it means identifying all of the ways the plan might go sideways and deciding how best to address the problem. 

It might seem crazy to write a contingency for “no potable water available on site” in a corporate project plan. I submit, for consideration, the time I was dispatched to install a server in a new office building that was still under construction. In Texas. In July. On a site where the building manager turned off all the floor’s air conditioning at 5 pm. Assumptions can get people killed. 

Finally, effective project management requires accepting that field work is constantly ugly. Stock video of consulting work is all beautiful young people in immaculate suits looking sexy and high-fiving between close ups of fingers typing and server rooms humming. It’s all Hollywood make believe. In reality, most server rooms don’t have attached lavatories or bunkrooms and biology is unforgiving. So, field teams adapt. They do the best they can with what they have even if it isn’t “glamorous.” There’s no reason to get mad about it. Instead, the people in charge need to focus on figuring out why the initial plan was inadequate the first time round and why critical resources weren’t available at point-of-use. Then commit to do better next time. 

To be fair, though, the military can learn a thing or two from Big Business. For example, if you need to sleep during an extended engagement, a suite at the Ritz Carlton can’t be beat. Also, be sure to sign up for the hotel’s rewards program. You’ll get to keep those points and use them for yourself. Also, everything that can be expensed must be expensed. After all, it’s the client’s money covering the minibar tab. 


[1] Military reservists under state control in peacetime.

[2] Want to know more? I suggest starting with David Schultz’s book “Double Canister at Ten Yards”: The Federal Artillery and the Repulse of Pickett’s Charge, July 3, 1863.

Pop Culture Allusion: Murphy’s Law (popular adage)

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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