Program Helps Marine Officers Develop Decision-Making Skills

Photo of Major Helminski teaching decision-making skills
Major Helminski paints the picture for the students. (Photo by Dan Grazier)

Instructors at The Basic School, the Marine Corps’ six-month-long course for all newly commissioned officers, are using training methods used in institutions like Harvard Business School and Columbia University to make better decision-makers. The Case Method Project at Quantico, Virginia, uses decision-forcing exercises, or scenarios used to place students in the role of a person facing a difficult problem. These are based on historical events, and help develop the student officer’s ability to make and communicate rapid decisions in a stressful situation. It’s a break from the traditional “task-condition-standard” training method, which teaches students to execute a prescribed set of procedures based on the situation. The traditional method makes it easy for the institution to evaluate training and goes a long way to teaching people how to follow checklists, but it does little to foster the kind of adaptability and creativity one needs to be a truly effective leader.

On the day of my recent visit, approximately 80 students gathered in a classroom to participate in a decision-forcing exercise centered around the 2007 story of 3 Platoon from the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment. The platoon of 19 British soldiers led by Lt. Bjorn Rose were attacking into a Taliban held village in Helmand Province when suddenly the soldier at the head of the column was hit by enemy gunfire. Lt. Rose and his soldiers had to evacuate their wounded comrade through twisting streets to waiting medical help while the enemy continued attacking.

With the aid of maps and pictures taken at the time of the real event, instructors provided the students with information about the size of the force available to them, the kind of vehicles they had, and where the enemy forces were expected. It was then up to the students to decide how to move the casualty a mile back to the ambulance. The instructors created a stressful environment by blaring recorded gunfire in the background and acting the part of frantic soldiers shouting questions at them.

This kind of training is based on a deep understanding of adult learning. Extensive research in recent decades has shown that most adults learn best through experiential learning. Using these methods, students first experience a situation and then reflect on it through a discussion with the other students and the instructor. Only then do they move onto the conceptual stage where they receive the kind of classes most people would expect to receive at the beginning of the process. The usual task-condition-standard training method makes students come up with a predetermined “right” answer. But in a decision-forcing case, they must figure out how to solve the problem without first being told how. The instruction they receive later will reinforce the knowledge they have already gained through their experience.

Marine Major Scott Helminski and Damien O’Connell, Senior Fellow of the Marine Corps Case Method Project, explained the ideas behind this approach and described some of the results they have seen so far.

Innovative training and education methods of this kind represent a rejection of the outdated assembly-line methods that have been in use for more than a century.  The old methods were based on the premise that all officers are interchangeable, just like a cog in a machine. So as long as each individual has gone through the proper training regimen, so the conventional wisdom goes, one officer is as good as another.

Breaking from that mindset is the first necessary step for the military to face all the challenges of the future. The character of modern warfare demands innovative officers capable of devising creative solutions to complex problems rather than simply following rigid checklists. Case studies and decision-forcing exercises help develop students’ critical thinking skills. In addition to enabling officers to make better decisions on the battlefield, these skills could help the officers later as they move up in rank to better challenge the current military system and make better decisions regarding budgets and the types of weapons the military purchases.

Photo of Dan Grazier

By: Dan Grazier, Jack Shanahan Military Fellow

Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight

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