In Praise of the Battle Rhythm

Introduction

A few weeks ago a small group of leaders in my directorate approached me asking to change the meeting schedule. Some of their employees had been concerned about the amount of time that they spend in meetings, a concern of us all, and had devised a way to improve the situation. I heard them out and then approved the change on a trial basis. Word went out to all of our employees. The new schedule didn’t last long, however, because our Commanding General (CG) needed to make a change at his level which invalidated ours. Now we needed to reverse course and let everyone know. Confusion abounded; even my executive assistant wasn’t sure what she should do and when.

What is a Battle Rhythm?

Within the Headquarters of the First Armored Division in Iraq, our daily organizational schedule was called our Battle Rhythm. Joint Publication 3-33 defines battle rhythm as “a deliberate daily cycle of command, staff and unit activities intended to synchronize current and future operations (http://www.aschq.army.mil/supportingdocs/jp3_33.pdf).” Coordinating the efforts of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of vehicles, and countless other factors was extraordinarily difficult and following a battle rhythm allowed our Task Force, our higher headquarters (the Combined Joint Task Force) and our subordinate headquarters at all levels to accomplish the mission.

Joint Task Forces have a senior staff officer in charge of each staff section, known as J-codes. J1 is personnel, J2 is intelligence, J3 is operations and training, J4 is logistics, J5 is plans and policy, J6 is communications and information management, and other J-sections include finance, civil affairs, and contracting. The J3 is often the largest J-code, having scores of staffers in some organizations. Each J-code disseminates information from these meetings to their team, to leaders of other directorates, and to outsiders. Every brief requires the preparation of slides and back up materials which can be modified for use by all of the organizational stakeholders. Some updates go to public affairs so that they can identify items suitable for news releases and articles. A sample battle rhythm for a medical J3 directorate is below:

Sample Battle Rhythm

Note that this battle rhythm is not merely a schedule but a plan for the routine weekly operations of the entire J3. It includes major meetings with the CG, the chief of staff, other J-code directors, and other internal and external stakeholders. It clarifies which meetings require briefing materials such as slides, who the primary audience for each meeting is, who the major participants are, and where the briefing materials should be distributed to inform others of activities. The battle rhythm makes note of the type of briefing materials needed, whether comprehensive slides, simple slides with bullet comments, action matrices, draft agendas, or other items. It also identifies when briefing materials must be completed, who reviews them and when, and when they are required by higher command. Organizations can more easily coordinate their activities if they know each other’s battle rhythm.

Why is a Battle Rhythm Useful?

Every organization, whether a US military task force with 37,000 people or a small business with 10 people, should produce and use a recognized, written battle rhythm. To summarize the observations above,
1. It coordinates the activities of individuals within the organization.
2. It coordinates the activities of those inside the organization with those outside the organization.
3. It gives internal and external stakeholders assurance that the leadership knows what it is doing.
4. It gives internal and external stakeholders something to plan their activities against.
5. It provides for preparation for events, big and small.

All I have shown here is the weekly battle rhythm, but the best organizations use monthly and even annual battle rhythms as well.

Once the battle rhythm is produced and circulated to make sure that it is the best compromise to meet everyone’s needs organizational leaders must enforce it. Few things are more frustrating to administrative staff (such as secretaries or executive assistants) than to be told to produce slides at a given time, only to receive no input on the slides from the subject matter experts responsible to provide input. The battle rhythm should be dated to minimize the chances of people using different versions, circulated to all of the appropriate stakeholders, and posted in a prominent place so workers can easily refer back to it. Employees should be taught how it works and why it is important.

Conclusion

After the aborted schedule change I went back to my office and typed up a new battle rhythm. I discussed it with the leaders who had come to me earlier, explained the need to change back, and edited the battle rhythm according to their constructive comments. I then ran the update past our executive assistants and other administrative staff. When we had a version that everyone could live with, we published and posted it. The confusion subsided and our directorate got back to smooth business again.

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