Saving Seven Questions: Part 1: Situational Analysis

Matt Offord

The Military Task Estimate (or Seven Questions) is a powerful strategic decision making tool that transfers seamlessly into business.  But it is also in need of updating for the Information Age.  Int his blog we take a look at Question 1 and update it for the digital era.

Sat on a wobbly cross-legged stool I tapped the new information into the laptop at my desk in the tiny cabin I shared with the Navigating Officer.  The Ship rolled lazily just outside the exercise mine-field causing me to clutch the edge of the bureau-style desk built into a single bunk bed.  Our ship was one of the smallest in the Royal Navy, designed to hunt for sea-mines floating above or lying on the sea-bed. We had, of course, planned the operation in detail.  But on arrival, there was new information to be accounted for, that would affect how quickly we search the area and dispose of any simulated mines (it was just an exercise).  Apart from the military context, this situation is frequently encountered in business.  A plan, project, programme or strategy is developed and then adjusted as new information is discovered.  The tool for decision making in the military is the Task Estimate.  My immediate task,as the Operations Officer, was to update the powerpoint presentation and then deliver the new Estimate up the chain. Not a world away from the day to day events of business.

It is little wonder that former service members use the Military Task Estimate (or Seven Questions)extensively even after they have left the Service.  In fact it is hard to find a veteran isn’t animated about the virtues of the Seven Questions.  The Seven Questions is a simple, practical and yet powerful analytical tool that takes one from situational analysis to multiple strategies called Courses of Actions (COAs).  The advantage of Seven Questions over the more common strategic tools (e.g. Scorecards, Scenario Planning, SWOT etc.etc.) is the inherent flexibility and simplicity of the tool.   Yet, Seven Questions is not taught in  Business Schools, one will not find it in Strategy Theory or any of the popular books on Strategic Decision Making.  This is a shame because the Estimate has enormous potential in business.  Despite this, the Seven Questions are limited by one simple fact.  Like most of the other strategy tools, it was developed in an Industrial Age mind-set. It cannot cope with the complexity and ambiguity of modern scenarios.  Although it is flexible (more so than most strategy tools), it is still limited in the amount of information it can process.  The result is that decision makers quickly become data-bound and unable to make effective decisions.  The tool needs to be updated.  Over the next series of blogs,I will update the Seven Questions, one question at a time, giving them a makeover for the 21st Century.  The result can be used for military and business decision making alike.


Question One: Situational Analysis

Many well-known strategic tools such as PESTLE or SWOT can be used to establish the current situation.  For the Seven Questions,however, this is just the start of the analysis.  As a result PESTLE, SWOT or other tools can be employed at this stage.  This is the great versatility of the Estimate, it is not constrained to a specific process but can be adapted to include appropriate analytical tools.  An good example of this is that the full Military Estimate format includes several pages of strategic analysis tools but is commonly reduced down to the Seven Questions; these can be retained in the memory or plasticised on a credit-card sized aide-memoire and kept in the pocket.  It can be used as required to fit any situation from a complex campaign plan to a quick-and-dirty project assessment.  

But take a look at the wording used for Question 1:  “Situational Analysis and effect on the Commander”.  It is easy to see why this language has not made it into business, it is alien to businessmen and women, perhaps alienating, intimidating even.  Well, OK it was never intended to be used outside of that environment.  However,there are other problems.  The wording suggests that there is a single situation rather than multiple scenarios linked through a complex fusion of causes and effects. In the Information Age, an organisation must understand this complexity.  Situational analysis is an opportunity to create narrative fallacies, that is to develop the situation as we see it.  Narrative fallacies can very damaging to companies due to the pernicious way they can penetrate cultures.  Before long, everybody believes stories often created with very little analysis.  Once created narrative fallacies only get stronger, due to confirmation bias.Confirmation bias is the name given to the human tendency to fit perceived facts to a world view and ignore those which do not.  Start With Another Narrative (SWAN) is my leadership model which actively challenges narrative fallacies by developing alternatives.  Without the discipline of actively challenging cultural stories, it is very possible for situational analysis to simply confirm extant beliefs. Group think sets in and disaster ensues. Another problem with Question 1 is the Commander.  The language itself need not be a problem; simply swap Commander for “Boss”,”Manager” etc.  But a one-person narrative is more or less certain to be wrong or at least extremely limited in the Information Age.  Perhaps as dangerous is the possibility that the team bend the facts to suit the Boss,especially if she has a strong personality. That the military retains this language is perhaps surprising.  It was the military (specifically the US military) who coined the term “agility” and “power to the edge” to counteract the networked decision-making of modern terrorist groups  by diverging from traditional command-and-control structures.

Applying SWAN philosophy to the Question One adapts the Estimate to the Information Age.  Rather than Seven Questions, I call the result an Information Task Estimate.   By considering alternative narratives and the complex of stakeholders,audiences, customers and competitors new narratives emerge.  The result is more complex than the original Seven Questions but still practical and easy to use.  The additional discipline of SWAN adds a new dimension and give the Seven Questions a revamp for the Information Age. 

Figure: Seven Questions becomes the Information Task Estimate

In the next blog, I will give Question Two a makeover, addressing the Task Analysis; the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.

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