Helpful hints for people leading decision-forcing staff rides

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Helpful hints for people leading decision-forcing staff rides


In a recent article ("The Staff Ride", Marine Corps Gazette, July 2018)  three professors from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College described their experience with role-play exercises conducted on historical battlefields.  In the course of doing this, they listed a number of problems that they had experienced in the course of leading these exercises.  The purpose of this article is to present a series of tips that, if followed, will allow the facilitators of decision-forcing staff rides to solve those problems.

Embrace Obscurity.  If facilitators (the people leading a staff ride) ask students to play the role of unfamiliar people dealing with unfamiliar problems, they greatly increase the chances that they will engage those problems with an open mind, one characterized by curiosity and imagination.  Thus, rather than asking students to fill the shoes of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, we invite them to take on the persona of Major Robert Beckham at Brandy Station or James Moore at Moore’s Creek Bridge.

Set the Stage.  The information facilitators provide about the people, places, and problems in question should be limited to things that the protagonist knew (or could reasonably have known) prior to the decision in question.  These include many details about such things as friendly order of battle, the intent of superiors, and recent events, but exclude knowledge about the thoughts of the enemy commander or the outcome of events.  (When they can be found, the best materials for this purpose are documents that were created shortly before the decision in question was made.)

Avoid Spoilers.  A well-run decision-forcing staff ride excites curiosity, helping students engage the problems in question with greater enthusiasm.  Once this curiosity is satisfied, however, there is a natural tendency for interest to decline.  Thus, when briefing students prior to a staff ride, or providing them with readings, videos, or podcasts designed to prepare them for the exercise, facilitators must make sure that the materials in question are free of information that will “give away the ending.”

Ask Open-Ended Questions.  The task of a student taking part in a decision-forcing staff ride is to devise, describe, and defend decisions.  Thus, the most common question that a facilitator will ask of a student in the course of such an exercise will be something like “what is your plan?”, “what are your orders?,” or “what are you going to do?”  The second most common, which may either precede or follow a request for a plan of action, is “what do you think is going on here?”

Be Unprincipled, Unprocessed, and Unprecedented.  Asking a Marine to make explicit reference to principles, planning processes, or precedents places a needless burden on a mind that should be fully engaged with the creative and critical engagement of a demanding dilemma.  Instead, facilitators should be guided by the wisdom of Marshal Foch, who famously wrote,  “to the Devil with principles and precedents.  The important question is ‘what is going on here’.”

Maintain a Poker Face.  The purpose of a decision-forcing staff ride is the cultivation of the professional judgement of the Marines taking part.  To this end, facilitators should place the burden of evaluation of plans on the Marines making them.  This, in turn, requires that they refrain from any sign, whether verbal or not, of approval or disapproval.

Exploit Experience.  Between 2007 and 2017, the teaching fellows of the Case Method Project of the Marine Corps University led dozens of decision-forcing staff rides.  In the same period, they taught hundreds of decision-forcing cases, classroom exercises that might well be described as “decision-forcing staff rides conducted indoors.”  Much of what was learned in the course of this experience has been reduced to a series of blog posts.  These can be found in the “Decision Games” section of the Military Instructor Website (

Practice.  People interested in taking part in decision-forcing cases and similar exercises can do so during the weekly meetings of the Decision Game Club.  These take place on Thursday afternoons, from 1630 to 1730, in Room 125 of the Gray Research Center.   For more information, please see the webpage of the Decision Game Club (