Good Decisionmakers Are Not Enough

by Capt Matthew Van Echo

The current training focus on decisionmaking is insufficient for developing Marines capable of making creative decisions consistent with our maneuver warfare philosophy. A disproportionate amount of focus is placed on teaching Marines how to make a decision and execute tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). These skills are important in developing effective Marines and units, but they must not displace an emphasis on teaching creativity. Current training does address decision- making. Trainers must facilitate an educational environment that encourages independent learning and self-evaluation, tolerates mistakes and teaches how to cope with failure, and uses doctrine, not TTP, as the intellectual foundation for a cooperative and socially dynamic training environment to develop creative decisionmakers.

Where Are We Now?

A quick look at the current training focus will demonstrate a shortfall that exists in training Marines to be creative decisionmakers. Each entry-level institution (boot camp, Officer Candidates School (OCS), and The Basic School (TBS)) doesn’t employ effective decisionmaking methods. Boot camp and OCS primarily focus on indoctrinating recruits and candidates into the Marine Corps. While indoctrination is an important concept, little of maneuver warfare doctrine has found its way into the training fundamentals of the Marine Corps’ entry-level training institutions. Maneuver warfare demands decentralized decisionmaking, initiative, and boldness, yet boot camp and OCS seem to emphasize rote memorization and instant obethence to orders in a highly centralized environment. It is difficult to comprehend how close order drill, a staple of first-generation warfare, is an effective indoctrination tool for the Marine Corps, which increasingly is finding itself engaged with a fourthgeneration enemy. Even TBS, which prides itself on producing decisive lieutenants and warrant officers, does litde more than teach new officers to accept making decisions in an ambiguous setting. Instead of being rewarded for effective solutions to tactical problems, students are encouraged to apply techniques learned in a class, whether or not they are appropriate for the situation. Staff members are advised to discourage “out of the box” solutions to tactical problems. Both situations discourage innovation in favor of the “safe” and predictable solution to tactical problems.

The focus of training in the Operating Forces does little more to encourage creativity. The Marine Corps’ obsession with synchronizing fires as the pinnacle of training does little to emphasize creativity. At no point in this type of training does innovation factor into a unit’s success. This type of training gets bogged down in the second-generation warfare concept of synchronization and doesn’t properly address decisionmaking and creativity.

One example of where decisionmaking and creativity connect is Exercise MOJAVE VIPER, which does incorporate long-accepted methods for training a maneuver warfare force like using force-on-force exercises and detailed debriefs. These both help develop creative decisionmakers, but units traditionally execute MOJAVE VlPER immediately before deploying to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. However, the timing for this type of training is a case of “too litde too late.” One possible explanation for this training shortfall (from the training institutions and Operating Forces units) is that there is a prevailing misunderstanding of what creativity is and how it enables maneuver warfare.

Creativity and Decisionmaking

Training should be rooted in decisionmaking with creativity as a constant thread throughout. The fluid nature of war makes this imperative. Decisionmaking skills alone might not properly address a tactical situation because there is always the potential for making a decision that is completely inappropriate to the situation. Additionally, a predictable action, either through initiative or reaction to the enemy, can have detrimental effects. In his book, Creativity: In Education and Learning Arthur J. Cropley argues that:

Genuine creativity requires a further element over and above mere novelty: a product or response must be relevant to the issue at stake and must offer some kind of genuine solution, i.e. it must be effective.1

From that position it is clear to see that trainers must move beyond merely developing decisionmakers and also work to develop Marines who can orient on a problem that ultimately produces an effective decision. Too often in training, decisionmaking is neglected in favor of the “right” answer. This is what Cropley describes as convergent thinking:

Convergent thinking is oriented towards deriving the single best answer to a question. It is effective in a situation where a ready-made answer exists and needs simply to be recalled from stored information, or where the answer can be worked out from what is already known by conventional and logical search, recognition, and decision making strategies. . . . but it focuses on recognizing the familiar, reapplying set techniques and preserving the already known and thus does not preserve novelty.2

Trainers should aim to develop divergent thinkers who would lead to more creativity. Cropley defines divergent thinking as:

Divergent thinking, by contrast, involves processes like shifting perspective, transforming or producing multiple answers from the available information and thus favors the production of novelty.3

With Cropley’s explanation it is clear that the result of training should be the development of divergent thinkers as opposed to convergent thinkers because a divergent thinker is more likely to develop a creative and appropriate response to a tactical problem where a convergent thinker will likely produce a predictable response.

Marine Corps doctrine provides a good starting point to examine how training can be structured to develop creative decisionmakers within the maneuver warfare philosophy. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3 (MCDP 1-3), Tactics, describes the Boyd cycle or what is commonly referred to as the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop. MCDP 1-3 further explains that the better one can orient on a situation, generally the better his decision will be. The primary goal of training should be to improve a Marine’s abilities to orient on a given situation. A divergent thinker is capable of looking at a problem from multiple perspectives and arriving at multiple solutions. These characteristics of divergent thinking, in essence, describe how a Marine orients in the context of the Boyd cycle. If a Marine observes a fixed stimulus then the recognition of patterns and potential solutions becomes how the Marine orients on the problem. Training should examine and develop how Marines interpret their observations, to see why some items standout more and thus have a greater impact on the decision. This process generates dialogue, debate, and discussion that will engage more Marines and result in more education than if TTP were the only focus.

Understanding how the Boyd cycle should frame the goals for training helps one see the connection to recog- nitional decisionmaking. MasteringTac- tics: A Tactical Decision Game Workbook (Marine Corps Association, 1994), by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR, set the intellectual framework for understand- ing the value of tactical decision games and their role in developing recogni- tional decisionmaking skills. It highlights the need to increase exposure to tactical scenarios with requisite participation and discussion to increase one’s exposure to decisions. The true value of the method is discussing which factors one uses to develop his solution. These drills enhance one’s abilities to recognize similar combinations of variables and improve decisionmaking by providing an additional experience to orient on future problems. This ability to recall similar situations or patterns enhances decisionmaking and begins to open the door to developing creativity. It is impossible to predict every tactical situation in which a Marine might find himself. It is just as impossible to try to create a playbook of tactical responses to every potential situation. It is possible though to predict that Marines will always find themselves faced with making a decision in a friction filled environment. It is this very reason that makes it obvious that to properly execute maneuver warfare, the development of creative decisionmakers must be the core element of all training.

Implementing Change to Develop Creativity

Much can be done to develop creativity without significant changes to training schedules. The most important change is to simply accept the idea that Marines must develop more creative decisionmaking skills. The next step is to incorporate the following ideas into existing training programs. Units will have different degrees of tolerance for change, but the more change is embraced the more successful the training will be.

Independent learning and self-evaluation. It is generally accepted that one learns better when self-motivated. This is especially true for adult learners who must recognize the value in what they are learning to achieve the greatest retention of what is being taught. When learning accompanies initiative, the path of discovery is limited only by the individual. The learning experience is broadened and enriched, unlike the externally directed learning experience. Learning is usually greater when students are engaged in the subject material. A more engaged learner exhibits higher retention and assimilation of material taught. Through a self-motivated education one is more likely to evaluate the worth of his pursuit and the quality of his work. This self-evaluation becomes important during the Boyd cycle because Marines will be more critical of their thought processes thus ensuring that important pieces of information are not overlooked, resulting in faulty orientation on the problem. Achieving this level of self-education requires leaders to not only encourage self-education but also to provide guidance for how to pursue it. Just like any attitude a commander wants his unit to adopt, this idea must be regularly addressed and, more importantly, practiced by the leadership.

Mistakes must be tolera ted and failure learned from. Most adults learn best by doing or performing a particular action. This is because performing a multiple process function involves more parts of the brain resulting in greater retention of knowledge. Using more areas of the brain where knowledge can be stored increases the potential recall of information. By creating an environment that tolerates honest mistakes, Marines will be more willing to be proactive and thus attempt to do more things on their own, which then leads to increased experiences. This idea should not sound new. MCDP 1, Warfighting, addresses this issue, explaining that successful after-action critiques require commanders to be willing to tolerate mistakes by subordinates. By being willing to accept mistakes there will be a greater willingness to offer new or alternative ideas. As Marines become comfortable with this practice they will become better problem solvers and ultimately provide more creative decisions.

An important aspect of this approach is to teach Marines how to deal with failure. Simple methods include analyzing a mistake to determine the cause of failure. This analysis should be used as a learning opportunity to expose the flaw in the Marines thought process, to see why that flaw caused negative results. Marines who are trained to see failure as an opportunity for growth will be more willing to seek innovation rather than the predictable solution and will be better suited to handle failure caused by uncontrollable factors. This increased adaptability will enhance their abilities to function in fluid environments.

Doctrinal principles must form the foundation of a cooperative training style Principle-based training, which provides more natural and instinctive responses to externally imposed forces than attempting to apply techniques and procedures, is a superior method of training than using TTP. From this style of training, unit TTP can develop but not at the risk of becoming the only solution to different problems exhibiting some similar characteristics. Training and, more importantly, education should focus on warfighting principles, understand Marines’ abilities to recall similar situations, and foster and encourage creativity.

What About the Basics?

It is easy to confuse the above argument with the idea of tossing the Training and Readiness Manual (TScR Manual) out the window resulting in each unit (platoon, company, and battalion) having very différent tactics, but a further examination is needed to see that this is simply not true. The T&R Manual is a good tool to justify training requirements like ammunition and targets. It is good for explaining performance steps using the “task, condition, standard” template. If one were to look at it within the three levels of war – moral, mental, and physical – as described by Col John R. Boyd, USAF(Ret) in his Patterns of Conflict (unpublished manuscript, 1986), he would quickly realize that the TôcR Manual only touches on the physical level of war. Training to develop creativity is not intended to replace a solid foundation in the science of war. It is intended to use these ideas with training in the science as a vehicle for providing opportunities to study decisionmaking and develop creativity.


Using creativity as the centralized focus with individual education as the decentralized method, a unit can create an environment conducive to improving the application of maneuver warfare. Training to make Marines decisionmakers can be a daunting task. Success is not easily quantified. However, by not applying creativity to our decisions, we may be simply playing into the hands of a highly adaptable enemy. Creativity is one of the best skills the Marine Corps can impart on its Marines to be more effective on today’s battlefield.


1. Cropley, Arthur J., Creativity in Education and Learning, Kogan Page Limited, London, UK, 2001, p. 15.

2. Ibid., p. 32.

3. Ibid.