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Get to the Decision: Briefing Analysis in the Pentagon

1 September 2021 No Comment
Col. Charles W. Weko, Chief, Command & Installation Program Analysis Division, Army Program Analysis & Evaluation

    Analysis must clearly support decision-making and be easily consumable for busy Pentagon executives.

    Do not mistake this to mean analysts have to “dumb down” their product. Instead, analysts have to grasp the intense cognitive demand Department of Defense executives experience. Analysts must limit the amount of unnecessary additional load they place on these executives.

    Understand the Environment

    The Pentagon workforce manages the corporate functions of the largest single organization in the world. A host of general officers, senior executive service employees, and political appointees make up the executive military cohort. These executives are faced with countless multibillion-dollar decisions. They must craft policies that affect the lives of millions of services members. Plus, they have to navigate an ever-evolving political landscape.

    None of these decisions is simple. What is more, anticipating the interactions between decisions is a daunting task. Many people will warn of second- and third-order effects, but actually identifying those effects in advance and incorporating them into decision-making can be contentious.

    Additionally, time demands are routinely unreasonable. Many military executives struggle to fit basic daily tasks into their schedules. Excruciatingly long workdays are the norm for most military executives. Simply finding time to exercise, eat, and even go to the bathroom can be an unpredictable task. One might expect that senior military executives can do whatever they want, but as the saying goes, “There is always a bigger fish.” The congressional and administration leadership has little patience for delay.

    Against this backdrop, it is hard to overstate the cognitive demands on military executives. They are forced to hop from topic to topic. They must compress meetings and squeeze out any wasted time. They have to focus themselves and others on the most important issues and avoid getting sidetracked.

    For an analyst, the ability to provide results that directly support decision-making and communicate those results is vital. The analyst who can provide tangible results is a rare and prized teammate. Those who cannot structure their information for rapid absorption are relegated to the unimportant tasks.

    Focus on the Decision

    The key to successfully briefing a Pentagon executive is focusing on the decision the analysis supports. What is the problem that requires the executive’s attention, and what actions can the executive take to address the problem?

    First, let’s be clear about the word “briefing.” Briefing a military executive is a highly interpersonal experience. Unlike in a classroom or at a conference, the military executive is in control of the pace, focus, and questions asked. There is no need to tell a military executive it is okay to ask questions—they know and they will.

    Second, the military generally has two kinds of briefings: a “decision brief” and an “information brief.” The fundamental difference between these is that a “decision brief” explicitly presents a problem with potential solutions while an “information brief” does not propose an explicit decision. The only reason a military executive ever takes a brief is to support a decision. They may not be personally making the decision, but they are likely concerned about the effects of someone else’s decision on their responsibilities.

    There are three basic questions an analyst should use to keep themselves and the executive focused on the decision. The briefing materials don’t need to answer these questions, but the analyst should be prepared to talk about the following issues:

    What decision does this analysis influence?

    Know the explicit decision the analysis supports. Even if you are providing preliminary analysis that might be called a “proof of concept,” be prepared to clearly link the work to a decision the executive faces.

    How does this information help me make the decision?

    The executive may not immediately see how to use the analysis to make decisions. Be prepared to directly link the analysis to a decision using a historical example. For example, “In the past, when the widget rate rose above 15 percent, we saw a drop in wocket production. If we want to keep wocket production stable, we need to take action to keep the widget rate below 15 percent.”

    So What?

    This question is a favorite of frustrated executives. Every analyst should be prepared to respond to it. The key to responding is understanding the executive is really asking, “Can I just ignore this analysis?” An unfortunate number of analysts wilt in the face of this question. They worry that if their analysis doesn’t directly shape the decision, they are not adding value. However, in many cases, being able to say some set of data doesn’t affect a decision actually makes the decision-making process clearer.

    Finally, even though the focus of a briefing should be a decision, don’t be disappointed if a decision isn’t made immediately following the brief. Executives will often seek input from multiple sources before deciding. They will often “preserve decision space” by delaying a decision so they can collect more data or work toward a consensus.

    Communication Solutions

    By the time an analyst briefs a military executive, the analyst has often spent a great deal of time working with their data and the policies affecting it. The depth of knowledge the analyst develops is valuable to the organization; however, the military executive will never be able to understand it as deeply as the analyst. Therefore, the successful analyst will focus on what needs to be communicated.

    Resist the urge to say, “It’s complicated.” Of course it’s complicated; that’s why we pay an analyst to sort it out. More importantly, this kind of introduction sets up barriers in the executive’s mind as they anticipate not being able to understand what is coming. Instead, begin with, “This is straightforward, but there are a few nuances to be aware of.” Then explain the straightforward part. Add complexity only once the fundamentals of the decision are clear.

    In most cases, the “nuances” will be different points of view held by other offices. The decision becomes convoluted by competing interests. Keeping these interests explicit helps keep the analytical portion of the brief straightforward and gives the executive opportunities to navigate the interpersonal aspects of the decision.

    When you structure your presentation, focus on walking the executive from the problem to the decision without presenting your personal journey through the data. The executive only needs to be briefed on what they need to know. If the analyst tried different approaches that didn’t yield results, the executive doesn’t need to know those details. One exception to this advice is when the analyst is explicitly asked to perform a specific approach. In that case, acknowledge the attempt, but spend only as much time on explaining the results as the executive wants.

    Analysts may have less time to give their presentation than they expect. At the beginning of a 30-minute session, the analyst may be told they only have 15 minutes to give their presentation. Many analysts embarrass themselves by talking twice as fast. Instead, take a deep breath, introduce the problem for decision, jump immediately to the recommendation based on the analysis, and then ask the executive what questions they have.

    Creating analysis that clearly supports decision-making and is easily consumable for Pentagon executives may initially seem daunting. However, empathy for the executive’s working conditions, a focus on the decision to be made, and a willingness to limit the amount of analysis presented can make all the difference in the world. Not only does the successful analyst become more valued in the organization and decision-making become more effective, but they improve the quality of life for those around them.

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