Planning Fundamentals: The “Why” of the Planning Process


In combat or in business, the higher the stakes the more critical planning becomes. For us as Fighter Pilots, planning is as essential as breathing. Flying blind (ie without the benefit of a common planning effort) forces you to operate in constant reaction mode, which takes a heavy toll and leaves plenty of room for error. The more rigor we apply to the planning process, the greater our chances of success.

When we plan Missions, we use a simple process that we call the Six Steps to Mission PlanningSM. While the process in extremely powerful, for it to be completely effective, you have to know WHY you are using the steps. The planning steps we use are not magic. The reason they work for us as Fighter Pilots is because of the underlying planning philosophy we all share. That’s what I want to brief you on in this article.

For us, planning is the art and science of envisioning a desired future and laying out effective ways of bringing it about. It is a preparation process that should build upon itself — each step should create a new understanding of the situation which becomes the point of departure for new Plans. Planning for a particular action only stops with execution and, even then, adaptation continues during execution.

  • Planning Helps Direct and Coordinate Execution. Plans direct and coordinate action by instructing those within the team what to do and informing those outside the team how to cooperate and provide support. Timelines and single points of accountability (SPAs) ensure that everyone knows what to do and by when.
  • Planning Develops a Shared Situational Awareness. The process of planning itself should provide a common understanding of the nature of the problem and so support communication and cooperation. In other words, planning is a way of exploring the situation.
  • Planning Creates Shared Expectations. It creates expectations about how actions will evolve and how they will affect the desired outcome. It should help us establish realistic objectives, identify problem areas, evaluate Courses of Action, and develop responses to contingencies. By helping to generate expectations, planning can help us recognize when an action is failing to accomplish the desired result.
  • Planning is a Catalyst for Individual Initiative. Planning supports the exercise of initiative. By helping us to know when expectations are not being met, good planning tells us when to depart from the original plan. By providing a shared situational awareness, planning helps us to maintain harmony with others while adapting the Plan, and to properly interpret similar departures by others. This function is especially important in highly uncertain and changeable situations.
  • Planning Provides a Disciplined Framework to Solve Problems. Good planning provides a disciplined framework for approaching problems. It provides coordinated and cooperative methods for solving problems in a group setting. The experience of developing a Plan can be a valuable preparatory exercise in itself regardless of whether the Plan is actually implemented.
  • Planning Forces Tradeoffs and Creates Focus. Tradeoffs are difficult but absolutely critical. Planning provides the means to clarify necessary tradeoffs by forcing us to consider what’s available — it compels us to evaluate what assets are available to work with, which people can make it work and how much time and money will be expended. Examination of these factors leads to creative solutions and provides a clear focus.
  • Planning Helps Manage Critical Assumptions. Assumptions are the foundation of any Plan, and the planning process itself facilitates an examination of the critical assumptions upon which the Plan is based. Effective planning provides a forum to evaluate the team’s overall knowledge and awareness. By forcing a classification of assumptions and their various risk factors, planning, by default, forces us to evaluate and prepare for all contingencies.

While the concepts covered in this article may seem a little academic, its critical that your planning team understands these things. There are plenty of planning processes to use — the HOW of planning. What is just as important for your team to understand is the WHY of planning.