8 Ways To Overcome The Pitfalls Of Operational Planning Teams

U.S. Air Force photo

Operational planning teams, OPTs for short, help solve some of the most complex problems that surface during warfare. These teams provide the avenue for combatant commands and joint task forces to develop key contingency plans, through deliberate or crisis-action planning. Like any other team, OPTs require the cooperation and teamwork of their members, a goal that's often easier said than done. To understand how to keep an OPT running smoothly, it's helpful to step outside the context of the military, and to think of these teams like football squads. Doing so — and borrowing from the enlightening article Teamwork Behaviors: A Review and Integration of Frameworks — is useful way to overcome the pitfalls that can bedevil field grade officers hoping to navigate the complex world of OPTs, and to avoid the “penalties" that can set any team back.


Nothing will destroy a leader's initiative more than an O-6 or hovering like a helicopter parent around an OPT. While the team obviously requires guidance and direction from senior leaders, too much could restrict its creativity. The hallmarks of this kind “helicopter leader" include consistent updates and sitting in the planning room to ensure every idea, no matter how small, has leadership approval. By the end of a planning session, this process will have crushed the soul of everyone on the team. Fifteen yards almost seems too small a price to pay for this infraction.

False start

Don't go in cold — every OPT leader should have his own plan before the group convenes and starts its work. At a minimum, every team should understanding its basic purpose, specific goals and milestones, and have an idea about deadlines and timing.

U.S. Army photo

Too many men on the field

This is an easy infraction to spot, on the field or in an OPT. When every branch and division sends two or three representatives to each planning session, nothing gets done. In the same way, when too many planners tackle one problem, the result is often a crowded huddle around one computer making minuscule changes to a slide. When a team grows to large, collaboration inevitably suffers.

Delay of game

When push comes to shove, leaders have to make a call. Ineffective ones often mask their inability to make a choice by shifting the decision up the chain to higher headquarters, justifying the move with explanations like the need for “strategic patience." Good leaders, on the other hand, keep in mind that while it's sometimes prudent to wait for conditions to ripen, it's better to shape the conditions of a situation than to have them shape you. ,

Personal foul

Group members should care about the final product, but they must also be wary of groupthink, and how developing an emotional attachment to a small part of the process can derail a planning timeline. OPT leadership must be able to recognize when the group is headed down this dangerous path and correct its course, particularly when the team is ready to start the crucial drafting process.

Illegal motion

This penalty covers two fields: a focus on product — getting too wrapped up in the presentation — or a focus on process — when then the team ties itself too tightly into the military or joint-planning decision-making processes. Pretty pictures and flashy slides may look cool, but they should not come at the expense of quality. At the same time, decision-making guidelines certainly have their place, but they shouldn't be enforced so rigorously that they construct creative thought.

U.S. Army photo

Ineligible receiver downfield

To be successful, OPTs must maintain sustained contact with higher HQ, adjacent commands, and subordinate headquarters. However, planning teams often make the mistake of dispatching a toxic personality as their liaison officer, if for no other reason than to avoid dealing with him on a day-to-day basis. While tempting, this route should be avoided: sending these kinds of characters out reflects badly on a team and its commanders.

Intentional grounding

Like quarterbacks, OPTs have a tendency to create throwaway action plans. But politicians want choices, so often it's far better to run an option play than a Hail Mary pass when you have the ball. Remember: throwaway COAs waste everyone's time — it is no coincidence they cost you a down in football.

At the end of the day, no football team is perfect, and the same could be said for OPTs. Like any squad, OPTs will have good and bad days, diehard team players and black sheep. However, teamwork, if done right, increases the quality of thought, helps compensate for biases, and brings forth the best ideas to the table. All teams commit a penalty from time to time — the key is to shake off these missteps and push on until you cross the goal line.

(U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stephane Belcher)

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