What Are Mission-Type Orders and How Do They Influence a More Effective Crisis Response?

If I heard it said once, I have heard it said a thousand times. “Maneuver and Mission Command sound like you want cops responding to crisis to have free reign. You want them to come as they are and do as they please. We would have nothing but a “cluster F*&#$” (Charley Foxtrot) on our hands. We have plans (usually 6 inches thick plans) for schools and workplaces and we need to follow them! I cannot trust my people without my direction and guiding their actions in crisis. So why allow this type of response?”

This statement, or some other version of it , has had me struggling for years how to explain, maneuver and mission command an its benefits in developing and applying effective courses of actions, to complex problems police face especially acts of violence, crisis and conflict. The purpose of this post is to try and clear up the confusion. I will seek to define and explain “mission-type orders” and how understanding these principals in practical ways to apply maneuver to police operations and how to win in crisis.

To police, nothing is more important than saving lives. When crisis strikes, it’s an emotionally stressful event or situation involving an impending, abrupt, and decisive change. The first critical question that arises is, what is happening? The answer does not come from plans and planning. The answer does come from probing, thinking officers responding to the scene and sizing up the situation and using their experience and wisdom, based on their education and development to come up with innovative approaches to the specific situation.

This does not mean, we do not plan. We must preplan. Planning help us identify critical infrastructure and needs. Pre-planning has us looking at specific environments that allows us to identify inner and outer perimeters, danger areas and how to tactically approach. We can identify staging areas for responding tactical units and rescue personnel as well, as media and a place for loved ones to stage so they can be informed as information come in. Plans can be implemented on order and direction from incident commanders. Plan can be implemented by time or sequence for a scheduled event or anticipated situation. Contemporaneous plans are developed to provide guidance to complex, and unfolding circumstances. So, called “preplans” are very useful but they usually deal with a class of incidents (school shooting, hostage or barricade situation, community events, etc.) rather than a specific situation. There are three types of plans common to police operations:

Deliberate plans-used for the conduct of all operations that can be anticipated and allow for detailed planning. A deliberate plan serves as a base for all related operations and May be considered the “Master Plan.”

Hasty plans-used when timeliness and quick response is paramount and provides an organized approach for unplanned or unanticipated events. Tailors response to immediate concerns as events continue to unfold. It functions as a sentry while continuing development of the deliberate plan, mainly the logistics of an operation that focuses on personnel and equipment issues and provides instructions for distributing and managing personnel and resources. The right person for the right job with the right tools at the right place at the right time.

Contingency plans-focuses thought on anticipated problems that arise during the conduct of the operation. A contingency plan allows for operational deviation while maintaining continuity with the deliberate plan. Guards against operations stopping due to confusion or a sudden change in the situation. Contingency planning usually applies only to concept or execution portions of the deliberate plan.

Written plans should be required whenever an operation is multi-disciplinary or multi-jurisdictional in nature and extends through multi-operational periods. Plans work great as situations evolve, shaping a response but in the golden hour of crisis when we still do not know for sure what is going on we must strive to:

“Improve the Incident Commander’s ability to function within the “golden hour” of critical incidents. This “golden hour” is defined as the chaotic stage of an incident in which the crisis is still fluid, meaningful information is difficult to obtain and situational awareness seemingly impossible to establish. In this initial period, it is difficult to determine how to set multiple people, groups and agencies on a path towards resolution.” We need think leaders, leading thinking police officers and other first responders. This is where mission and intent come into play and is based on the premise that an organization that tries to be in control of everything will not be successful in crisis."

In our efforts to bring order to chaos, the overwhelming focus is to gain control of everything possible. We attempt to control the first responders: the police, fire, EMS and the by-standers who take initiative to help in the response. We intend to control the victims and the bad guys. We angle to control the media that are intent on getting the story. We wish to control the response from families and friends, who are overwhelmed with emotion and fear. We endeavor to collect and gather information that may shed light on the situation and those involved. We then analyze the information and distribute it to those who need to know. We plan to control everything in an instant even as we are maneuvering initially to contact the problem, mobilize our resources and set up our long-term responses and command and control systems.

In doing so, we are stifling the effectiveness of our responses because of our efforts to control. Instead we must provide guidance not through detailed plans that all to often do not survive contact with an adversary, we provide guidance by leaders providing their responders with a clear mission and intent. The best explanation I have found on mission and intent is from William S, Lind’s masterful work in the Maneuver Warfare Handbook:

Mission-type orders. Mission Type orders are key to the decentralization necessary for a rapid Boyd Cycle. A mission-type order tells the first responders and tactical leaders what his superior wants to accomplish. That is the mission. It leaves the how to accomplish it largely up to the first responders. As the first responder’s situation changes, he does what he thinks is necessary to bring about the result his superior wants. He informs his superior what he has done, but he does not wait for permission before he acts. What would happen to his Boyd Cycle if he did?

A useful way to think of mission-type orders is in terms of contracts between leaders and first responders. There are two contracts. One is long-term. It is based on what we call the commanders intent. This is the commanders long-term vision of what he wants to have happen to the adversary, or the final result he wants. For example, a commander’s intent in a school shooting may be to “restore safety and order back to the school.” The first responder needs to understand this. The contract is simple: the first responders contracts to make his actions serve his superiors intent, what is to be accomplished and the superior contracts to allow his first responders great freedom of action in terms of how this intent is realized.

The mission is a shorter-term contract. It is a slice of the commander’s intent, a slice small enough to be appropriate to the immediate situation of the first responding unit. To continue the school shooting example, the mission may be to “stop the threat and render aid.” The contract is the same: the first responder agrees to make his action support the mission in return for wide-ranging freedom in selecting the means.
How far does this freedom of action go? The answer, as is so often the case in using maneuver tactics, is that it depends on the situation. In some cases, the freedom of action granted the first responder may be total. The commander may not specify anything more than the result to be achieved.

At other times, the order may be quite specific and detailed as far as the first responder’s initial actions are concerned. A good example is a deliberate raid on a prepared location such as a known armed and dangerous subjects home, or a hostage rescue situation. Jumping off points, timing, and initial objectives will often be specified, and those officers involved in the raid will rightly be expected to do what he is told. But once the raid is underway and the situation begins changing rapidly, the raiding officer(s) will again be expected to adjust his actions to the changes on his own initiative, with appropriate reference to his commander’s intent.

Under such a system, how do you avoid mistakes? You don’t entirely. Mission-type orders and “zero-defects mentality” are contradictory. A police agency that uses maneuver believes it is better to have high levels of initiative among first responding police, with a resultant rapid Boyd cycle, even if the price is some mistakes.

Doesn’t the commander lose control if his subordinates have a great deal of freedom to make their own decisions? The historical record quickly shows this is not the case. In an after-action review of the Boston Marathon Bombing, The authors talked about the ability to shape the response with Swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence is the ability of people to gather, make sense of and share information both explicit and implicit information, with one another and make it actionable. In the course of this research, they discovered an unusual phenomenon among leaders of the Boston Marathon Bombing Response. Though many people took charge of aspects of the response, no one was in charge of the overall event. Beyond that, these leaders set a tone of remarkable collaboration and inter-agency leveraging among one another. Competitiveness, ego driven behavior, and flamboyant credit taking – which are often present in large complex crises that involve many different jurisdictions and organizations – were not significant factors in this event. As John Boyd said In Organic Design for Command and Control:

“Without the implicit bonds or connections associated with similar images or impressions, there can be neither harmony nor individual initiative within a collective entity.”

Teams or unit orientation, is key but it is seen rarely in groups of people, working in centralized and controlled environments. Using the tools of common outlook (mission and intent), focus of effort, and avoiding strengths and exploiting weakness, we can convert individual orientations, into a harmonized common team orientation, allowing first responders to do what needs to be done with little direction from above, once a clear mission and intent is established.

Does using maneuver tactics, guided by a clear mission and intent mean you can do whatever you want? In many cases, you can largely do what you want in terms of means, but not ends. Your actions must always fit what your commander is trying to accomplish with his intent and mission. If he also suggests some means, you cannot disregard his suggestions, but if you find that the situation changes or is different from what your commander envisages, you put the ends above the means and do what you think is appropriate. For police leadership all you have to do is, train them, trust them and then, let them do their jobs!

Stay Oriented!