Small Wars Journal

In Praise of Failure

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 3:35pm

In Praise of Failure

Harold R. Schyberg III

 “The secret to my success…, I fail better than anyone.”

                                                                        -- Brian Burress, SFC, US Army

Failure in training is vital in unconventional and conventional warfare environments. Battalion and higher staff must fail in training and then correct their mistakes. The battalion staff must complete the failure cycle-- failing and then adapting to prevent the failure in the future. Create mitigating mechanisms to reduce negative results -- in any exercise, without repercussion. Leaders must foster an environment that encourages honest mistakes.

Battalion and Group/ Brigade leaders must also be given greater flexibility to fail. Those who build the scenarios in a complicated training environment like National training Center (NTC), the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) or the Joint Maneuver Training Center (JMTC) must also build in the option for their plans to fail or at least not completely succeed. This will require that training events be longer, more complex and more expensive. Yet in an ever increasingly complex and more interconnected world this kind of training is precisely what will satisfy that requirement.

Failure stings like nothing else and, as warfighters, we do most anything to wash ourselves of its stink. Still we learn far more from failures than we do from our successes. In The Defense of Duffers Drift by E.D. Swinton, in a series of dreams Lieutenant Backsight Forethought fails his way to eventual success, learning a lesson with each failure. This is how we must train our Noncommissioned Officers (NCO) and Officers. Like Lieutenant Forethought leaders must be patient with our NCOs and officers as they work through their cycle of failure in order to emerge successful.

Future brigade and division staff Officers and NCOs will have a greater role in making decisions - the role of the commander will evolve away from that of puppet master to that of gardener. This change requires the staff to have greater confidence in its ability to direct the battle in the confines of the commander’s guidance. Commanders will play less of a role in maneuvering and play a greater role in fostering the staff. This will not free the commander of risk, yet the commander must have the trust and confidence that his team will make the appropriate decisions. The commander’s intent will now be the driving force behind the staff decisions making process.

Commanders must shift their thinking regarding battle.  Failure must be tolerated when it is done competently. The failure cycle implies that if a soldier fails he can try again, adapt his approach, and will not be punished by his leaders. This mind set must take root in the battalion and division staff. There must be a cultural shift in the way commanders view those who fail.

The world is becoming more interconnected, mega cities are becoming norm for violence and conflict and rural conflict is being relegated to acceptable risk section. The need to protect non-combatants and integrate non-standard forces is becoming increasingly more common. Into this environment we will be sending Soldiers who have little experience and only a vague understanding of the nuance that permeates these situations. Soldiers in this situation will have no resistance to failure yet they will experience it often.

When we train without failure we do a disservice to our leaders and Soldiers; we teach them that they cannot fail and therefore they have no resistance to its infection. Leaders can become overwhelmed and unable to adapt. The cure for this fear and weakness is to grow as many anti-bodies against it a possible; embrace the idea that it may not consume the host.

When these unimmunized leaders advance to battalion and brigade commanders, they create a climate where no failure can be allowed. This makes that staff afraid to make decisions that could fail. This fear paralyses the staff’s ability to get away from traditional approaches to problems.  Even those who are brave enough to present innovation often do so with hesitance. This lack of thinking makes a staff predictable and rigid, ensuring disaster in a complex environment.

A benefit of training with failure is that the staff will know what failure looks like. Without this understanding the staff is more likely to diagnose some tactical situations as failures rather than letting them mature into successes. Over the course of the American Civil War, General Sherman developed his tactical philosophy that “in a battle the side that thinks they have lost, has.” Gen Sherman’s failures had given him insight into how to recognize it in the Confederate and his staff. The training environment is the best place to train the staff so it will not take five years and tens of thousands of lives to learn failure’s lessons.

While Soldiers will still be required to know what right looks like, leaders must understand what wrong looks like, too. When a staff can identify failure then they can devise contingencies that when failure comes knocking at our door we greet her with a cup of tea. It becomes essential that the battalion staff knows what failure looks like at the platoon, company, and battalion level. The only way the staff recognizes failure at these levels is if they have worked through the failure cycle at each of these levels.

Leaders in the state department and leaders of three letter agencies value the failure cycle. They are seldom praised when things go well, yet they are all keenly aware of the price of failure. When failure rears its ugly head as it so often does these leaders are harshly rebuked for the failure. For this reason they, like U.S. Army communicators, have come up with a plan called the PACE plan (primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency).  These agencies expect failure and have options in place to mitigate and often reverse failure. Army planners at all levels must also have a PACE plan.

When the battalion staff plans for failure, they are not displaying a lack of trust in their subordinates, they recognize war is uncertain and the enemy adapts.  Failure is ever-present; as leaders we must accept it, prepare for it, and create a climate to mitigate it.

NTC and JRTC training scenarios can incorporate the failure cycle. Failures in these arenas may initially lead to frustration. Yet, Companies will quickly learn to adapt. When a unit fails to take its objective or has a catastrophic loss of rapport methods for coping will be devised out of necessity and then later incorporated into mechanisms that the staff will put in place so that they can mitigate the fallout from these failures or even reverse them.

This way ahead: The Army must build into the training objectives the possibility of failure. This means that battalion and brigade staff sections must be allowed to make honest and calculated mistakes in training. This will challenge the staff to identify the failure and then correct and reverse the mistake. This level of freedom to fail will make the staff and the Soldiers fighting more effective when they are faced with these challenges in a complex, evolving combat setting.

The SOF Unconventional Warfare (UW) exercise developers intentionally prioritized the Group and Battalion staffs; however, the staff is not stressed during the exercise. When, only one operational detachment alpha (ODA) experiences any failure and this is often anticipated. This is detrimental to the staffs training. The staff knows that they will not experience any “real’ failure. When the staff is aware of which ODA will fail and is prepared for it, not growth will occur. This narrow scripting must be done away with. The scripters must have multiple criteria that would cause each ODA to fail. This would stress the staff as they would have no way of knowing which or how many ODA(s) will fail. Once an ODA has failed, the staff must then determine the level of failure. Can the ODA recover or should they move their evasion plan of action (EPA). If recovery is possible, how will the staff employ available assets to support the ODA? This scenario allows for increased adaptability, innovation, and failure inoculation to occur.

Leaders at all levels except that a Platoon Leader will fail in training, indeed Ranger School is predicated on this very notion. We as a military must understand that failure at all levels is the tool we use to create better more resilient leaders. We must have Ranger School-type of training for commanders from the Company to the Division. This type of training would be predicated on the notion that every leader at every level fails and this gives them the opportunity to learn from it and adjust accordingly.

We fight in an environment that grows increasingly more complex. This complexity will require more agile and adaptable leaders, those who have failed their way to success. Those leaders who have failed more times than others have will prove more resilient.  Soldiers will grow and adapt when failure is allowed and added to the mission.  Therefore, leaders must create a climate that sees failure as a learning opportunity, appreciates innovation, and takes a mistake and converts it into success.

Categories: training - leadership - failure

About the Author(s)

Captain Harold (Hal) R. Schyberg III is a U.S. Army Signal Corps Officer currently serving as a brigade S-3.