Decentralizes Decision Making

How the Marine Corps Decentralizes Decision Making

Let me tell you a secret about a simple mechanism that the U.S. Marine Corps employs to decentralize decision making. The brilliance of it is in its simplicity, and I do believe it’s mostly a secret. Only once in all my years have I run across anyone who has described what I’m about to describe here. Then again, maybe a reader will correct me, and tell me I’ve simply been looking in all the wrong places.

I call it the “Rule of Three.” The idea is that in times of stress humans can only realistically work with three things at a time. Any greater and we may be too saturated to quickly decide on a course of action. This is especially critical on the battle field.

I’m not certain if the research validates this claim. It may. It may not. If you know, comment below with some links for us to consider. For now though, I’ll focus on what was taught to me during my decade in the Marine Corps.

How the Rule of Three shows up is quite elegant:

  • The smallest unit in the Corps is a fire team. It include three members and its fire team leader.
  • Every squad is constructed of three fire teams and its squad leader.
  • Every platoon is constructed of three squads and its platoon commander.
  • Every company is constructed of three platoons and its company commander.

And so it goes all the way up to on high. For any other veterans listening, I realize I’m overlooking a cast of characters such as administrative staff, senior enlisted, and others. I hope you’ll forgive the oversimplification.

What this structure allows is for each leader at each level to conceptualize via the Rule of Three. For example company commanders think in terms of their three platoons. Conversely, fire team leaders think in terms of their three fire team members.

Now let’s layer in decision making. We’ll need information to do so. This is where the Five Paragraph Order comes in. There’s a lot to it so let’s drill down into just two parts that illustrates decentralized decision making:

  1. What is important?
  2. Who is important?

“What is important” comes from the second paragraph called “Mission” and is usually a single sentence that captures the when, who, what, where, and why (called the five W’s). Imagine I’m 1st squad leader and my platoon commander has provided me with this mission:

On order, 1st Squad will destroy the enemy observation post located near the objective in order to prevent the enemy from interfering with the platoon assault on the objective. We are a supporting effort.

Then as part of third paragraph called “Execution” we have commander’s intent. Commander’s intent stays mostly static as orders cascade. The MCDP-1 Warfighting manual defines it:

The purpose of providing intent is to allow subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative—to depart from the original plan when the unforeseen occurs—in a way that is consistent with higher commanders’ aims.

Also part of Execution are tasks. This is the mission (those five W’s again) decomposed for our three “pieces.” Imagine I’m that same squad leader from earlier:

  • 1st Fire Team. On order, remain in reserve and monitor our east and south flanks to avoid enemy ambush or escape. You are a supporting effort.
  • 2nd Fire Team. On order, attack to destroy the enemy observation post near the objective in order to prevent the enemy from interfering with the platoon assault on the objective. You are the main effort.
  • 3rd Fire Team. On order, provide mortar support on or near the objective so that the enemy may not reinforce their position. You are a supporting effort.

Notice how that last sentence captures the “who is important.” When leaders craft their missions and tasks, they always identify who is the main effort and who is the supporting efforts. Only one of your “pieces” can be marked as main, which tells all your other “pieces” that if the main effort is at risk, divert your forces in support.

That’s it. The structure is built on the Rule of Three and information cascades down and increment decisions are made in relation to the three “pieces” that each leader owns. Of course, I’m neglecting to talk about how information finds its way up the chain, but that’s a story for another day.

It all just feels far too simple or far fetched to work in reality, doesn’t it? I think the Marine Corps’ success speaks for itself in this regard, and I–for one–have seen it work for making decisions during times of stress and crisis. What I haven’t yet seen is an organization innovative enough to adopt this decentralized decision making model for the civilian sector.

Wouldn’t that be a sight!

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