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On using dice with a military audience ← Back to Blog index

I recently gave an ‘Introduction to Operational Analysis‘ presentation to the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College’s Advanced Command and Staff Course students and Directing Staff. At one point I left the security of the lectern, walked to front centre stage and, laying my professional credibility on the line, produced a large rubber 6-sided die and told a story.

Some years ago I was a Course of Action (COA) Wargaming Subject Matter Expert floorwalker at a corps level CPX. HQ 1 (UK) Div was a player HQ and were conducting a COA Wargame. The success of the plan being wargamed was predicated on breaking through an enemy blocking position, and the HQ staff had applied sufficient combat power so that the supporting operational analyst assured them that the force equivalency ratio was 3:1 in their favour. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and assumed the attack would, when the time came, succeed. We all ‘know’ that a 3:1 ratio ensures a brief fight then home for tea and medals. Or does it…?

I asked the analyst what 3:1 actually meant. He told me that it gave an approximately 70% chance of success, based on historical analysis of planned attacks versus a hasty defence. I translated ‘approximately 70%’ to 66% for obvious reasons explained below.

At this point (and knowing him quite well) I approached the General Officer Commanding (GOC). Armed with the analyst’s figures I gave the GOC the self same large rubber die and asked him if he would be happy rolling it in front of his peers and commanders when his plan was executed. If he rolled 1-4 his plan worked, but a 5-6 meant his plan failed; the enemy would remain firm and the entire corps plan stall. With almost no hesitation he called his COS and the plan was revised; more combat power was applied to increase the chances of success.

So what? The point of the story was to illustrate:

  • Holding the die represents the owner of a plan holding the risk.
  • Considering rolling the die in front of peers and superiors makes the point that you only get one shot, and you will be judged on it.
  • This also emphasises the fact that the plan will be executed; it is not just a planning activity.
  • Understanding the numbers is what OA brings to the party.

I then roll the die, having reminded the audience that a 5 or 6 equals failure. Inevitably all eyes follow it… at which point I shout at them not to look at the die! To do so is to search fruitlessly for a predicted outcome, which we all know cannot be delivered.

Having lambasted the audience for following the tumbling die I tell them that the mental image I want them to take away is of themselves holding the die in front of their peers, ready to roll. Understanding the numbers (the OA), would they be comfortable, as the risk-holder, to roll the die when it comes time to execute their plan?

Indeed they shouldn’t roll the die, just picture themselves holding it; it represents the risk they are taking, and OA allows them to better understanding the numbers therein. Because, of course, OA can only support decision making and assist military judgement; it should not pretend to be predictive.

That was 2 weeks ago…and I haven’t yet been invited back. Even if I’m not, it appeals to the recreational wargamer in me to think that I might be the only person to have ever rolled a large rubber die across the Staff College main lecture theatre!

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One Response to “ On using dice with a military audience ”

Mike Young November 22nd, 2012 at 10:24 am

Yes, an excellent idea…how to use dice properly. I have found a great aversion to dice when I have worked with the military. It is just too much associated with childhood games. Kids don’t mind dice. Mathematicians and Analysts with a good understanding of probability know that Dice=Random number so don’t mind dice. In the middle I am not sure. Sometimes people believe that if they are doing something serious it can’t involve a dice. The post above is an excellent way to overcome this problem.

I am thinking of doing something very similar. Decision Workshops has been looking at a scenario on “The botched Greek Euro Exit”. In this Greece plans to leave the Euro one Friday, but the plans leak out on the Wednesday, and the markets go haywire. Fortunes are made and lost. But the people getting the leaks don’t know if the leak is genuine. Perhaps the Greeks plans were nothing more than just plans and no decision had been made to implement it. Perhaps plans are genuine but the actual date has been changed. Perhaps the Greeks are bluffing. The exercise is about the two days panic. At the end of it all everyone will want to know if Greece is actually going to leave the Euro. But the fortunes will have been made or lost already. If Greece leaves or not is irrelevant. At this point I will hold a dice in my hand and unashamedly rip of the ideas from your blog. “It doesn’t matter” I will say and firmly refuse to throw the dice.