From Naval Doctrine Publication 6 - Naval Command and Control, 1995

Decision Making Theory

Making sound and timely decisions is a key objective of the command and control process. In military operations, several general principles of decision making apply. First, because war is a clash of opposing wills, we realize that we cannot make decisions in a vacuum. We must take our enemy into account -- recognizing that, while we are trying to impose our will on him, he is trying to do the same thing to us. Second, whoever can make and implement sound decisions faster gains a telling -- often decisive -- advantage. Third, a military decision is much more than a mathematical computation -- it requires intuition and analysis to recognize the essence of the problem and creativity to devise a practical solution. Such ability is the product of experience, education, intelligence, boldness, perception, and character. Fourth, because all decisions must be made in the face of uncertainty and every situation is unique, there is no perfect solution to any problem in military operations -- so we should not agonize over finding one. Instead, we should adopt a promising course of action with an acceptable degree of risk, and execute it before an adversary can get oriented and take action. Finally -- in general -- the lower the echelon of command, the faster and more direct decision making can be. An individual unit commander can normally base decisions on factors that he observes firsthand. At successively higher echelons of command, commanders are further removed from events by time and distance. As a consequence, in a well-trained force, imbued with initiative, the lower we can push the decision-making threshold, the swifter our decision and execution cycle will become.

The defining features of the command and control problem -- uncertainty and time -- exert a significant influence on decision making. As knowledge about a situation increases, our ability to make an appropriate decision also increases. Knowledge is a function of information so, as the quantity of information increases, the effectiveness of the decision also should increase. At some point in the process, however, when basic knowledge has been gained and the quest for information focuses more on filling in details, we reach a point of diminishing returns. At this point, the potential value of the decision does not increase in proportion to the information gained or the time and effort expended to obtain it. As the amount of information increases to this certain point, knowledge is increasing and the time needed to make an effective decision is decreasing. Beyond this point, additional information may have the opposite effect -- it may only serve to cloud the situation, impede understanding, and cause the commander to take more time to reach the same decision he could have reached with less information. Therefore it is not the quantity of information that matters; it is the right information made available to the commander at the right time.

    A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.
      General George S. Patton, Jr., U.S. Army
One theory of decision making sees it as an analytical process. The commander generates several options, then identifies criteria for evaluating these options, assigns values to the evaluation criteria, and rates each option according to these criteria. The basic idea is to compare multiple options concurrently to arrive at an optimal solution. Analytical decision making tends to be thorough, but timeconsuming. Theoretically, experience is not necessary for effective analytical decision making -- reasoning power is enough.

A second approach to decision making is based on intuition. This approach relies on an experienced commander's ability to recognize the key elements of a problem, rapidly integrate them, and make a proper decision. Intuitive decision making thus replaces analysis with experience and judgment. The intuitive model credits an experienced commander with the ability to grasp the situation in its entirety, an ability sometimes called coup d'oeil.6 Intuitive decision making strives to find the first solution that solves the problem, rather than waiting for the "best" solution. The speedier intuitive model is consistent with the view that war is ultimately an art rather than a science -- there is no absolutely correct answer to any problem. The intuitive model works on the assumption that, by drawing upon personal experience, the commander will generate a workable first solution, and therefore does not need to develop numerous options. If time permits, the commander may evaluate his decision; if he finds it defective, he moves on to the next reasonable solution.

Each model of decision making has its strengths and weaknesses; which is better depends on the nature of the situation, particularly on the time and information available. Typically, the analytical approach is more appropriate for deliberate planning prior to military action, when the time is measured in hours or days and extensive information can be gathered and processed. In this situation, modeling, simulation, and exercises may be useful in allowing the commander to evaluate his potential courses of action. The intuitive approach is clearly more appropriate for the fluid, rapidly changing environment of combat, when time and uncertainty are critical factors. In practice, the commander usually will incorporate certain analytical methods and decision aids into an essentially intuitive process whenever the situation warrants and time permits.


6 Literally, "stroke of eye" -- a quick view or survey.