staff tools are only as good as the person behind the implement
Every profession has “tools of the trade,” those implements that they simply cannot be without for the performance of their duties. The military is no different, but many of the things civilians consider tools of the trade for military service are those used by front-line units. These range from the radio, map, and compass of the infantry platoon leader to the complex targeting and operating systems of air and sea forces. These tools stand out in the popular vision of the armed forces because they’re sexy, exciting, and provide a strong presence in popular media. But there are other implements of war that are required for victory, ones that do not stand out on the silver screen. They are the tools of the staff officer, that wretched creature that every officer holds in their past or future. This article will describe some of those tools, and ways that I’ve seen them go horribly wrong.
Back when the Army had a staff school, my instructor there once uttered this memorable phrase to me: “Ray, tell me the exact point in your briefing where the monkey climbed out of the back seat and took control of the car.” That instructor was relentless in crushing our bad habits: reading directly from the slides, creating overly busy visuals, and being overly reliant on PowerPoint. The specific sin that he was addressing in my case was failing to think about likely questions from the audience that would completely derail the briefing. It is true that effectively briefing a general officer or senior leader is in part driven by familiarity with those rarified strata. In a vicious cycle, screwing up a senior officer briefing makes it very likely that you will never get the opportunity to do it again, which means you’ll never improve. Watching a briefing go off the rails in this manner is simultaneously cringe inducing and fascinating; you simply cannot look away. The worst part is when the briefer is stubbornly convinced of their position, even in the clear presence of facts to the contrary, and refuses to yield.
Information papers are the primary weapon of a staff officer. Done well, they capture the essential elements of a topic or issue in a way that crystallizes the key issue at hand. The criticism I often hear about the use of information papers is that they allow decision-makers to get away with being shallow on various issues, never understanding the nuances of a particular topic. While a valid concern, I think it misses a key implied element of this tool: it is a way for the staff officer to show mastery of the topic and that he/she has thought about the second and third order effects of the issue. It is incredibly difficult to get an issue down to its essentials and the process of doing so frequently reveals hidden assumptions, missed questions, and unseen opportunities. Instead, I see information papers with laundry lists of facts, with no underpinning narrative or sense of the “so what?” I have had the good fortune of working with and for some really extraordinary professional writers, so I acknowledge that my standards are high. But more than anything else, a bad information paper shows a lack of ownership of a topic.
Talking points are simultaneously reviled and yet an absolutely essential tool of supporting senior officials. It is understandable why people dismiss the idea that someone requires a script in front of them to engage in policy work. But words mean things, and in complex policy issues the wrong adjective or descriptor can lead to severe misunderstandings, especially when working through a translator. Ideally, talking points function as a kind of memory jogger, a “don’t forget nothing” cognitive aid to ensure that all of the major objectives of a meeting are met. But there are times when the principal is worn out, distracted, irritated (in other words, human) and needs to go directly off their points. For that reason, talking points are best written in the manner that they would be delivered, instead of as broad statements about what to talk about. Never assume that just because the person you are writing the points for is senior to you that they have some hidden wealth of knowledge on the topic at hand. The effectiveness of your talking points might be tested by use of “Napoleon's corporal”: give the points you've written to a complete stranger to the topic and see if they can deliver them semi-coherently. If they can't get the message across that you're seeking to convey, time to go back to the drawing board.
Similar to the old saw about trees falling in the forest, if there is no readout of a meeting, did it ever happen? Readouts, minutes, or meeting summaries (sometimes called executive summaries) that capture the essence of conversations and decisions are perhaps the most important staff tool because they direct follow-on action.
Readouts cannot be simple transcription: conversations are often elliptical, looping back to previously covered topics two or three times to re-attack particular points or issues. The language is often colorful, using descriptions and references that should not be captured in any official document. The important question is: who is the readout for? On one hand, you're trying to capture usable information for other people in your organization. On the other hand, you need to feed key facts to other groups with a need to know, so what you're sending has to be digestible for folks with many other elements competing for their attention. This goes back to the old quote from Blaise Pascal: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” It really is true that it takes far less effort to just regurgitate what happened instead of summarizing it in a way that accurately captures both the nuances of discussion and the outcomes.
In the final analysis, staff tools are only as good as the person behind the implement. The most exactingly detailed information paper format is useless unless someone wields it with sufficient intellectual curiosity to ask the hard questions and the dedication to find answers to them. The best-planned briefing will fall flat if the presenter is insufficiently empathic to understand the needs and desire of their audience. Marshall McLuhan famously said, "We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us." Staff officers have an obligation to craft their tools while remaining firmly in command of their employment.
Ray Kimball is an Army staff officer who has made every single mistake he cites in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Capt.Taylor Blevins sits in the mass briefing room with approximately 50 other U.S. and allied nation pilots July 16 at Red Flag 09-4 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Mass briefings can last more than an hour and provide pilots with vital information for their simulated combat scenarios. Captain Blevins is assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)