Response to ‘Improving Marine Commanders’ Intuitive Decisionmaking Skills’

by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR

LtCol W. Frank Ball and Morgan D. Jones based their article, “Improving Marine Commanders’ Intuitive Decisionmaking Skills” (MCG, Jan96), on my article, “How We Decide” (MCG, Oct95). They misconstrue my meaning so badly that it is necessary to respond. They apparently missed my basic point that there are times when methodical analysis is preferred, and I discussed those situations in my October 1995 article. My main point was that intuitive decisionmaking is superior in the vast majority of typically fluid, uncertain, highstress tactical situations.

My argument with Ball and Jones is that they try to extend analytical decisionmaking to those situations that call for intuition. They start out by supporting my argument that (in their words) “intuitive decisionmaking is usually all that battlefield conditions allow,” but then they promptly proceed to make the old argument for the analytical model. They actually warn against relying on intuition and instead argue in favor of generating multiple courses of action for every situation, comparing the courses concurrently according to some set of criteria (in this case, a series of predetermined questions), and picking the optimal solution. This concurrent comparison of multiple options (known in the field as multiattribute utility analysis (MAUA)) is precisely the core of the classical, analytical decisionmaking method and precisely the same basic method, although less formalized, as used in FMFM 3-1’s command and staff action sequence. It is fundamentally different than what I described as intuitive decisionmaking.

The rationale for their argument is the typical one: that (1) intuition cannot be trusted and (2) an analytical approach will lead to the optimal decision. It is important to deal with both of these points, because they are wrong. On the first point, as I mentioned in my original article, intuition scares many people because it cannot be easily documented, quantified, or reduced to a procedure. The process is, as the name indicates, intuitive, and for many people a process that cannot be reduced into methodical steps cannot be trusted. But my main point was that, given an experienced commander, intuitive decisionmaking does work-in fact, in the typically uncertain, time-competitive, friction-filled, high-stress environment of combat, it generally works better than MAUA.

As to the second point, Ball and Jones mistakenly suggest that I criticized intuitive decisionmaking because it does not aim to reach the optimal decision. Actually, I argued that given the complexity, uncertainty, fluidity, and friction of most tactical situations, there is no such thing as a perfect decision. Whereas MAUA seeks to optimize, intuitive decisionmaking seeks to “satisfice”-to find the first solution that satisfactorily solves the problem. My position is that it is generally better to reach and execute a good decision quickly than to waste time agonizing over an optimal decision, which generally doesn’t exist. As Gen George Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” Analytical decisionmaking may seek to optimize, but it will invariably fall short. Again, contrary to Ball and Jones’ interpretation, my point was that in most tactical situations, given an experienced and skilled decisionmaker, intuition works.

Indicative of their misunderstanding, Ball and Jones write:

Most of the time intuition gives us decisions that are, as Maj Schmitt says, ‘good enough,’ because the problems we normally face are not momentous. But on those occasions when our decisions have critical consequences, we run heavy risks if we rely on intuition. The reason is that the unconscious mind can easily mislead us . . . as it does, for example, to the quarterback who misreads a blitz and gets sacked, or to a leader in combat whose misreading of a battlefield situation results in excessive casualties and failure of the mission.

Whether a decision is good enough has nothing to do with the seriousness of the consequences. Either the decision is good enough or it isn’t. If the decision gets the jobs done, it gets the job done no matter how serious the potential consequences. And do Ball and Jones mean to suggest that a quarterback in the pocket should not rely on intuition born of experience but should instead deliberately analyze the defensive scheme as the play unfolds? I can pretty much guarantee that he will get sacked if he does that because he will quickly be overcome by events. Their own example of the quarterback under the pressure of a blitz illustrates just why intuition is essential. Why is it that rookie quarterbacks seem to get intercepted and sacked so frequently? It is precisely because they lack the intuitive pattern-recognition skills that their experienced counterparts have developed over time.

Ball and Jones imply that intuition is impulsive and unprofessional and has “an insidious downside.” On the contrary, in a skilled commander there is nothing impulsive about intuition; it is a highly developed and sensitive skill. It can demonstrate a degree of perception and insight that no series of pre-established questions (or any other MAUA process) can capture. In my opinion, highly developed intuition is precisely what professionalism in this context is all about. It is what separates the true master from the mediocre commander. To go back to the authors’ quarterback example, it is exactly this highly developed intuitive pattern-recognition skill that made the physically unexceptional Joe Montana arguably the greatest quarterback ever to play the game of football.

Ball and Jones write that “probably no other human mental trait has led to more needless combat casualties and military defeats.” There is no empirical basis for that statement. Maybe poor decisions have, but those are a function of bad decisionmaking and not necessarily of the decisionmaking method. Analytical decisionmaking is certainly slower and more methodical than intuitive decisionmaking, but there is not evidence whatsoever to support their claim that it is any more likely to guarantee a good decision.

In stating that analytical decisionmaking is by far “more comforting,” Ball and Jones betray the real reasons behind their preference-by providing a veneer of rational, scientific process, analytical decisionmaking lets us convince ourselves that we are making better decisions. These two authors are not alone in this desire for comfort. War, as Clausewitz wrote in On War, is characterized by high levels of friction, uncertainty, disorder, and stress. The common appeal of the analytical method is that it allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking we have more control over what happens than we really have.

I do not suggest that intuitive decisionmaking is not subject to human biases or that those biases may not lead to misperceptions and errors in judgment. Research shows, however, that given an experienced and skilled commander the likely result will be effective decisionmaking. Moreover, biases, preconceptions and lock-in can just as likely find their way into an analytical process. We have certainly seen it happen with the command and staff action sequence. In fact, recent observations in a Marine Corps-sponsored study suggest that experienced commanders reach effective (and often better) decisions faster using intuition than their staffs can generate courses of action by following staff planning models.

The simplistic example that Ball and Jones provide to support their argument instead reveals the considerable practical problems with their approach. They describe a company commander who must decide how to take out an enemy machinegun position, and they depict him discussing the problem with his executive officer according to a series of predetermined questions. First, I think they seriously underestimate the time (25 seconds by their calculations) and effort it will take to hold this conversation in the middle of a firefight. Second, they describe the decision essentially as a multiple-choice test asking which of three choices to use to destroy the machinegun position. But most tactical decisions are not a simple matter of selecting from among a few well-defined existing options: Most tactical situations require the creation of a unique practical solution to a unique set of circumstances. Third, the example shows the company commander asking three questions for which the same option is clearly the preferred answer. But what happens when the answers are inconclusive or when there is a split decision-when the questions solicit different preferred solutions? Do the authors propose some sort of tie-breaker rule? Fourth, the example shows what amounts to a technical decision about which weapons to use against a particular target. The proposed method will have much less utility in dealing with the less tangible factors that usually influence tactical decisionmaking. When it comes to considerations like morale, the element of surprise, or deciding on a scheme of maneuver, the simplistic types of questions Ball and Jones propose will offer little insight. And a more complicated set of questions would actually risk becoming an impediment by making the decisionmaking process unduly cumbersome. In summary of the above points, I think Ball and Jones have seriously underestimated the natural complexity and difficulty of tactical decisionmaking, even at the lowest levels. Finally, the example illustrates just the kinds of decisions that should be made intuitively. Any company commander who has to deliberately analyze how to respond to the scenario described does not deserve to be responsible for the lives of a company of Marines.

It concerns me significantly when Ball and Jones suggest that “the Marine Corps can easily formulate a standard systematic sequence of questions for battlefield situations.” Presumably, if the questions are to have any utility at all, different sets of contingent questions will have to be developed for a huge variety of situations. The result will be that instead of providing actual experience in decisionmaking, which is essential to developing requisite pattern-recognition skills, training will focus on memorizing numerous lists of pre-established questions for a broad number of situations. Any professional worth his or her pay check will rebel at the idea of having to make tactical decisions by referring to a list of proforma questions.

All this having been said, however, there is some utility to Ball and Jones’ suggestions. But the value is in critiques during training and education rather than in actual decisionmaking situations. I think the idea of systematically questioning decisions after the fact is an excellent way of accelerating the learning process. Likewise, raising and discussing alternative courses of action is a valuable after-action technique in educational situations. Vigorously questioning decisions to uncover key assumptions, considerations and thought processes is precisely the technique we have used in tactical decision game seminars for the last 6 years. But I would prefer to see the questions based on judgment and the understanding of a particular situation rather than on a predetermined format.

Ball and Jones have got it precisely wrong when they submit that their techniques are “needed to overcome a lifetime of our relying on unchallenged intuition.” A lifetime of unchallenged intuition? Hardly. What has gone unchallenged over the years is the denial of intuition as an acceptable decisionmaking source and the misguided belief that the blind adherence to mechanical processes will lead us to better tactical decisions.