The Recognition-Primed Decision Model
A KEY Objective Force premise is to achieve
a significant increase in operating tempo (OPTEMPO). Fundamental
to increased OPTEMPO is gathering, integrating, and applying information
that helps military planners anticipate and counter threats before
an adversary can act. To act faster than the enemy can, the Army
currently uses a procedural and cumbersome military decisionmaking
process (MDMP) that military planners often abbreviate.1
However, little guidance exists on how to abbreviate the process.
U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations,
gives suggestions, but no real guidance.2
To take full advantage of the Objective Force's new capabilities,
the Army needs a strong, fast, flexible decisionmaking process.
In 1989, Gary A. Klein, Roberta Calderwood,
and Anne Clinton-Cirocco presented what they called the recognition-primed
decision (RPD) model, which describes how decisionmakers can recognize
a plausible course of action (COA) as the first one to consider.
3 A commander's knowledge, training,
and experience generally help in correctly assessing a situation
and developing and mentally wargaming a plausible COA, rather than
taking time to deliberately and methodically contrast it with alternatives
using a common set of abstract evaluation dimensions.4
Klein, S. Wolf, Laura G. Militellio, and Carolyn
E. Zsambok show that skilled decisionmakers usually generate a good
COA on their first try.5 J.G. Johnson
and M. Raab replicated this finding, extending it to show that when
skilled decisionmakers abandon their initial COA in favor of a later
one, the subsequent COA's quality is significantly lower than the
first one.6 Johnston, J.E. Driskell,
and E. Salas show that intuitive decision processes result in higher
performance than do analytical processes.7
The findings call into question the rationale behind MDMP, which
assumes that good decisionmaking requires generating and evaluating
three possible COAs to find the best solution.
John F. Schmitt and Klein developed the Recognition
Planning Model (RPM) from research on the RPD model and on several
studies of military planning exercises to codify the informal and
intuitive planning strategies skilled Army and U.S. Marine Corps
(USMC) planning teams used.8
The RPM has stimulated interest in the military
ever since Schmitt and Klein described it. Individual Army and USMC
battalion commanders have experimented with the RPM and found it
useful. The British military has been conducting experiments with
the RPM, demonstrating its face validity.9
Peter Thunholm performed the most stringent research, contrasting
performance for division-level planning groups in the Swedish Army
that used either a variant of the RPM or the Swedish Army version
of the MDMP.10
Thunholm found that the RPM permitted an increase
in planning tempo of about 20 percent. Thunholm also observed that
RPM plans were somewhat bolder and better adapted to situational
demands than MDMP plans, which tended to be more constrained by
an over-compliance with current doctrinal templates. The Swedish
Army has adopted a variant of the RPM, and Sweden's National Defence
College provides training on tactical planning aided by that model
Rather than trying to replace the MDMP, Schmitt
and Klein sought to codify the way planners actually work. Therefore,
the RPM does not feel awkward or unnatural to planners, who often
say, "We're already doing this," which is exactly the
intent-to codify existing effective planning practices that reflect
the best planning practices that have evolved over decades.
The RPM, which reflects current theory and
research, is a practical application of the RPD model. The RPM is
consistent with natural practices and enables an increase in tempo
without losing efficacy, which offers a potentially useful application
for the Objective Force.
RPM strategy is for commanders to identify
their preferred COA so the staff can work on detailing and improving
it. (See figure.) The first stage (understand mission/conceptualize
a COA) of the RPM is a key stage that conceptually differs most
from other stages. Once a unit receives a mission from higher headquarters,
the commander and staff try to understand that mission while also
deciding how to proceed. Identifying a base COA early can guide
mission analysis. The RPM depicts these two functions during the
same stage. Commanders can describe this base COA or ask the staff
If commanders have not identified a base COA,
the staff can ask for suggestions. Commanders can choose to do the
initial conceptualization of a COA on their own or with a small
group of key staff members or subordinate commanders. If the military
situation is unfamiliar or undeveloped, a substantial amount of
mission analysis might precede a COA's conceptualization. If the
commander is familiar with the military situation, mission analysis
might occur quickly. The RPM does not freeze a planning staff into
a single strategy; it enables the commander and staff to search
for options if the situation is so unfamiliar that the commander
cannot recognize what to do and provides techniques for collaborative
The next stage of the RPM is for the staff
to "test and operationalize the COA." As staff members
do this, they might already be preparing operations orders (OPORDs)
or finding flaws that disqualify the COA. The staff might discover
a COA that seems significantly better than the one the commander
has identified. In such cases, it makes sense to contrast the two
options by imagining the consequences of implementing each, not
by reviewing them on a common set of abstract dimensions.
The staff then wargames the COA to see if the
plan will hold up against enemy COAs. If there is time pressure,
wargaming can also serve as a rehearsal, enabling the staff to begin
building execution matrixes.
The next step is developing an OPORD, which
is a cut-and-paste procedure since this work began during the "test
and operationalize the COA" phase. Often, when using the RPM,
the staff only considers one COA; consequently, unlike when using
the MDMP, the staff need not wait until after a COA selection stage
to develop an OPORD. Finally, it is important to realize that the
RPM has a variety of feedback loops during each stage.11
A comparison of the MDMP with the RPM field
manual reveals several key distinctions between the two:
• The rationale behind the models is
completely different. The MDMP uses a decision analytic rationale
called multi-attribute utility analysis. The RPM uses a recognition-primed
• Research support is weak for the MDMP's
basic assumption that developing and comparing several COAs results
in finding a superior COA.
• The RPM builds on experience and expertise.
The MDMP uses analytical procedures, which can prevent or hamper
an experienced planner from using the ability to quickly assess
a situation and come up with a plausible COA.
• Time pressure degrades the MDMP, whereas
the RPM capitalizes on time-constraints.
• The MDMP is rarely fully implemented
in the field, whereas the RPM describes a natural strategy. Essentially,
the RPM truncates stage III of the MDMP (the generation of multiple
COAs) and stage IV (wargaming all three COAs) and eliminates stages
V (COA comparison) and VI (COA approval).
We also compared the RPM with the somewhat
vaguely described abbreviated MDMP. While the RPM and abbreviated
MDMP rely on developing a single COA, in the abbreviated MDMP, doing
so is doctrinally viewed as a highly degraded planning strategy.
In the abbreviated MDMP, the commander and staff are assumed to
have followed all of the MDMP steps, although they might perform
some automatically. Thus, in the abbreviated MDMP, developing a
single COA is the last resort. The abbreviated MDMP would restore
some of the MDMP steps that had been skipped or slighted if more
time became available. In the RPM, additional time would be used
to do more wargaming or to enable subordinate units to increase
In 2003, the Fort Leavenworth Battle Command
Battle Laboratory (BCBL) assessed the RPM during a 2-week experiment.
An Objective Force Unit of Action (UA) (brigade) staff was assembled
on an ad hoc basis. The group included retired senior officers and
active duty officers from several Army battle labs. In addition,
the BCBL used a notional Unit of Employment (UE) headquarters to
provide guidance to the UA, which had several battalion commanders
under its control.
The BCBL devoted 2 days to training the UA
staff in the RPM. During two practice runs, the staff, configured
in staff sections, used electronic tactical decision games to stimulate
the decisionmaking process. The BCBL prepared a detailed manual
to document the steps of the RPM and to describe various RPM tools.12
The next phase of the experiment included 5
days devoted to exercising the RPM, beginning by introducing a Caspian
Sea scenario. The three subsequent planning-execution loops were
variations of offensive operations. The staff then received a new
mission involving stability operations and support operations and
spent the day engaged in planning. A team of researchers using observations,
questionnaires, and in-depth interviews of key personnel collected
a considerable amount of data during the experiment.
Participants had little trouble using the RPM
for the experimental scenarios. The face validity for the RPM was
high. A typical comment was that they were just doing what they
always did and that the RPM did not seem like anything new. Of course,
this was the point of the RPM-to reflect and codify a commander's
typical planning strategies. Participants estimated that the RPM
took at least 30 percent less time than the MDMP did.
Most participants favored the RPM from the
beginning, and the number of favorable comments increased each day
while unfavorable comments decreased. But participants did raise
some concerns. They felt that while using the RPM they had a tendency
to rush through mission analysis to get into conceptualizing the
COA. They felt that some MDMP mission-analysis tools could be usefully
incorporated into the RPM.
One participant, who had been most critical
of the RPM at the start, pointed out that mission analysis can really
benefit from knowing the COA early on and that the two processes
can be done again and again. He wanted to alter the RPM diagram
to better reflect this iteration. Actually, the current RPM manual
reflects the iteration, which is why the figure lists both processes
in the same box. Using the COA to guide mission analysis is another
advantage of the RPM.
Another concern was that under battle conditions
a commander might be distracted and have to depend on the staff
for understanding the situation and conducting planning. Others
disagreed, arguing that the deputy commander could drive the RPM
process if the commander was not available. The next rotation in
the experiment used the deputy commander as the key decisionmaker
to demonstrate this point.
Several participants recalled instances where
they had to suffer with inadequate plans initiated by inexperienced
staff members. The RPM allows the commander to drive the process,
using the staff to detail the plan and catch flaws. Further, even
if the commander were hurried, it seemed better to spend 20 minutes
at the beginning identifying the base COA than to spend 10 hours
later fixing inadequate plans. If the commander is involved from
the beginning with the conceptualizing, the benefits can ripple
throughout subsequent planning and execution.
New techniques available in the Objective Force
will allow advanced collaboration between commanders at various
levels without needing to physically assemble at a single location.
Our view is that the RPM is quite commander-driven, as opposed to
staff-driven, and might be more compatible with Objective Force
intentions. Although the process is commander- driven, the commander's
willingness and ability to "uncover expertise" in the
staff is key to the RPM, especially in novel situations. We observed
two instances when the UA commander deliberately sought expertise
that could overcome problem areas in the COA-once in the context
of an offensive operation and once in the context of the support
One question that arose was whether commanders
and staff officers performing unfamiliar missions such as stability
operations or support operations could use the RPM. Clearly, commanders
lacking experience with regard to a mission will generate lower-quality
plans when using the RPM. However, planning staffs will also generate
lower-quality plans using the MDMP if they are responding to unfamiliar
missions. In fact, this objection is not valid because the RPM manual
allows the staff to provide a thorough mission analysis and to suggest
a COA if a commander cannot generate an early COA.
The fact that a situation is novel does not
necessarily enhance the relative advantage of a multiple-option
planning model over a single-option planning model. The key to a
good solution lies in the ability to correctly assess the situation,
since that assessment will guide the judgment about what is a good
COA. Contrary to this concern, the RPM enables a commander to modify
a plan as he and his staff discover its inadequacies and provides
them with the time to cycle back and replace a poor plan with an
The RPM introduced a new process-a "PreMortem"-for
identifying critical flaws in a plan, which was presented as a way
to counter the potential inaccuracies of a commander's intuition.
Although the PreMortem was an optional step at the end of the first
stage, the staff insisted on running a PreMortem in every planning
rotation and moved it up earlier and earlier in the cycle. Most
participants considered the PreMortem quite useful.
Another new process called the "commander's
interview" encouraged the commander to state clearly the rationale
and intent behind the preferred COA.13
The new process provides an organized method for staff members as
well as subordinate commanders to question the commander's thinking
behind the COA. This process took place spontaneously during the
exercise, but some participants emphasized the possible benefits
of such a deliberate process in situations where the commander is
not naturally expressive.
When the UA received a fragmentary order that
required drastic changes to its plan, having a base COA to guide
new planning seemed to make replanning smoother. Participants did
not show the typical signs of resisting change and feeling locked
into the plan because of "sunk" costs already spent on
planning or of feeling that the planning time had been wasted.
Despite using the RPM, participants gravitated
to a number of MDMP tools, and future exercises might include these
as parts of the RPM or as options. For example, during mission analysis,
participants continued to list specified and implied tasks, assumptions,
and concerns. They developed maneuver graphics when operationalizing
the COA, and they used attack guidance matrixes and collection and
support plans. During wargaming they constructed an execution matrix.
The orders or other products that the RPM generates
are similar if not identical to the products the MDMP generates.
That participants never mentioned a need for a COA generation or
evaluation tool as part of the RPM is interesting. The most requested
tools were those that helped participants visualize the battlespace,
such as an automated version of the modified combined obstacle overlay.
Participants also concluded that some means
to rapidly sketch and disseminate the base COA was imperative. Using
the collaborative tools available was time-consuming and frustrating.
Until they could prepare a more detailed electronic map, all they
needed was a hand-drawn sketch, which the commander could disseminate
quickly. This is in line with earlier observations of experienced
decisionmakers who tend to concentrate on understanding the situation
as fully as possible.14 When the situation
is well understood, the best COA often suggests itself to the decisionmaker.
The conclusion is that tools that make visualization of the battlespace
easier are more helpful than COA generation and evaluation tools.
One participant, a colonel, cautioned participants
to be wary of 26 years of legacy thinking versus 5 days with the
RPM. He emphasized that this first demonstration was not sufficient
to justify replacing the MDMP with the RPM. He did feel that the
RPM had demonstrated sufficient face validity to warrant additional
The framework behind the RPM suggests a different
set of planning tools than those the MDMP needs. Instead of needing
tools for generating and comparing COAs, the RPM needs tools for
sizing up situations and facilitating replanning as part of the
cycle of continuously improving and adjusting the COA.
1. U.S. Army Field Manual
(FM) 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations (Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office [GPO], 1997).
3. Gary A. Klein, Roberta
Calderwood, and Anne Clinton-Cirocco, "Rapid Decisionmaking
on the Fireground," proceedings, Human Factors and Ergonomics
Society 30th Annual Meeting, Dayton, Ohio, 1986, 1, 576-80; Klein,
"Recognition-primed decisions," in Advances in Man-Machine
Systems Research, ed. W.B. Rouse (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc.,
4. Jon J. Fallesen and
Julia Pounds, "Identifying and Testing a Naturalistic Approach
for Cognitive Skills Training," in eds. Eduardo Salas and Gary
A. Klein, Linking Expertise and Naturalistic Decisionmaking (Mahwah,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001); Klein, Sources of Power:
How People Make Decisions (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998); R. Pascual
and S.M. Henderson, "Evidence of Naturalistic Decisionmaking
in Military Command and Control," in Naturalistic Decisionmaking,
eds. Zsambok and Klein (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
1997); Klein, Intuition at Work (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
5. Gary A. Klein, S.
Wolf, Laura G. Militello, and Carolyn E. Zsambok, "Characteristics
of Skilled Option Generation in Chess," Organizational Behavior
and Human Decision Processes (1995): 62, 63-69.
6. Joseph G. Johnson
and Markus Raab, "Take the First: Option Generation and Resulting
Choices," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
7. J.G. Johnston, J.E.
Driskell, and E. Salas, "Vigilant and Hypervigilant Decisionmaking,"
Journal of Applied Psychology (1997): 82.
8. John F. Schmitt and
Gary A. Klein, "A Recognitional Planning Model," proceedings,
Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Newport,
RI, 1999, 1, 510-21.
9. R.G. Pascual, C.
Blendell, J.J. Molloy, L.J. Catchpole, and S.M. Henderson, "An
Investigation of Alternative Command Planning Processes," Defence
Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) paper prepared for the UK
Ministry of Defence (in preparation); Blendell, Molloy, Catchpole,
and Henderson, "A second investigation of alternative command
planning processes," DERA paper (in preparation).
10. Peter Thunholm,
"Military decisionmaking under time-pressure: To evaluate or
not to evaluate three options before the decision is made?"
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (in press).
11. Schmitt and Klein,
"A Recognitional Planning Model."
12. Schmitt, Klein,
Thunholm, Holly C. Baxter, Karol G. Ross, and M. Bean, "Recognitional
planning model," manual prepared for Battle Command Battle
Laboratory, Fairborn, OH, Klein Associates, Inc., 2003.
13. Klein, "Intuition
at work"; L.G. Shattuck and D.D. Woods, "Communication
of Intent in Military Command and Control Systems," in eds.
C. McCann and R. Pigeau, The Human in Command: Exploring the Modern
Military Experience (New York: Plenum Publishers, 2000), 279-91.
14. Klein, "Recognition-primed
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