Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Reforming Pentagon Strategic Decisionmaking

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Reforming Pentagon Strategic Decisionmaking

Article excerpt

The recent 2006 Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report to Congress gives a surprising prominence to decisionmaking reform. Prior to the 2006 QDR Report, Pentagon leaders thought reforms they made between 2001 and 2005 were sufficient to produce major shifts in military capabilities that would move the Department of Defense (DOD) into the 21st century. (1) Yet by the time Pentagon leaders finished the report, they believed strategic decisionmaking reforms were one of only two fundamental imperatives for DOD to emerge from the QDR (the other being the need to continue efforts to reorient military capabilities toward new threats). (2)

The importance of good strategic decisionmaking in matters of peace and war is easy to understand but difficult to achieve. At a minimum, it requires reforms that modify both senior leader decisionmaking styles and organizational support. We begin this paper by identifying prerequisites for good decisionmaking. We then describe problems and conditions that currently diminish the quality of Pentagon decisionmaking and close by making a case for a new decision support capability that would improve Pentagon decisionmaking.

Blink and Think

It is commonly assumed that people can and should make decisions as rationally as possible. Rooted in economic theory, rational actor models postulate that people make decisions by identifying and comparing options to determine which one produces the optimal outcome for a given set of circumstances. While the rational actor model has generally done a good job of explaining human decisionmaking in the aggregate, close observation of human behavior clearly demonstrates that people rarely act in a purely rational manner. Often, people use a variety of mental shortcuts to simplify and speed up their decisionmaking. (3) Thus, people exhibit "bounded rationality," which not only helps them make decisions but also introduces a range of nonrational psychological factors into their thinking.

An otherwise rational decisionmaking process may be limited by many factors specific to individual decisionmakers, the organizations they inhabit, or their broader decisionmaking environment. Here we concentrate on the forces that most influence senior leaders in the Pentagon, including organizational affiliation. One model based on affiliation notes that organizations create environments that "adapt" members so that they further the organization's goals. They do this by: (4)

* dividing work among members and/or subunits

* controlling access to information

* providing standard operating procedures

* creating an organizational culture that promotes a specific set of values and norms

* establishing a formal chain of command for promulgation of authority and communications

* establishing programs for training and indoctrinating new members.

As a result of these behaviors, organizations increase the likelihood that individuals will make decisions consistent with the organization's interests and predispose individuals to decisionmaking shortcuts that limit their ability to make rational decisions.

For a long time, experts viewed deviations from the rational ideal as something to be minimized, corrected, and eliminated if possible. The presumption was that any reduction in rationality degraded the quality of decisions. Recently, however, psychologists and scientists researching human decisionmaking have concluded that people using mental shortcuts can produce good decisions in difficult circumstances. One of the most popular nonrational theories of decisionmaking, which can be dubbed the "intuitive model," proposes that people make decisions by recognizing situations, matching them to previously experienced situations, trying out various solutions in their heads by running "What if?" mental simulations, and then picking the first solution that is good enough to satisfy the problem at hand. …

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