Lessons From the Military

A five-paragraph operations orders format from the U.S. Army can help municipal leaders give crystal clear directions that lead to successful projects

Clear, simple and thorough directions — we all want them. Then why are they so hard to give, and so hard to get?

Perhaps we can learn something from an organization with worldwide operations that issues thousands of directions daily to coordinate thousands of independent working groups — one for which keeping everyone moving in the same direction is critical to the accomplishment of strategic national goals.

For years, the United States military has taught managers at all levels to use a simple five-paragraph format to give directions. It’s known as Operations Orders (OPORD). The British, Australian and Canadian military forces use a similar format and fire and emergency responders use another closely related system.

The format was developed in the American forces during World War II as late, inadequate or misunderstood theater-wide operations orders to individual units led to excessive battlefield failures and missed opportunities. Of course, these failures were deadly stuff for front-line soldiers under fire.

Unclear and misunderstood directions are no treat for civilian managers, either. The five-paragraph format used to give directions in the U.S. Army follows an acronym called SMESC, for Situation, Mission, Execution, Service Support, and Command and Signal. The Army’s memory device for SMESC is Sergeant Major Eats Sugar Cookies. Consistent use of the format helps managers give simple, clear directions.



Situation is a brief description of the current status of the project, problem or task, where key players are, and the issues that affect what they have to do. An example:

“Six inches of snow is expected tonight. We’re short the plow that broke down yesterday. Plus, we have to mix and load our own sand and salt, because Jones at the shed is gone for a funeral. Holiday traffic will make the roads busier. The near-melting temperature will make roads slippery, especially later this evening when it starts cooling off. Luckily, Lake County will lend us their extra plow and driver; and the sheriff will conspicuously post extra squad cars to slow drivers down.”



The mission is what needs to be accomplished. It should also explain the manager’s intent and the related organizational strategic goal that applies to the mission.

The manager’s intent is a critical part of the mission directions because it gives everyone an idea of the big picture and how their piece of the operation fits. Manager’s intent also provides general guidance for mission goals when things change dramatically.

Knowing intent allows the crew to adjust and work to overcome missing information or support when things don’t go according to plan. The mission directions should give basic, specific information, so that someone reading them can answer the questions who, what, where, when, why and how. An example:

“Our goal is to safely clear the roads without causing any accidents and to make the roads safe for the public. As always, our first focus will be on keeping the main arteries and emergency routes clear. If you are plowing or sanding in an unfamiliar area, consult your route cards.

“Pull over to let traffic pass when it starts building up behind you, or at least every half mile. Pull over quickly but carefully if someone tries to pass you unsafely. As we know, drivers get restless but can’t see through our plowing blizzard. Push big piles of snow out of the way, so that they don’t block the lines of sight for drivers at intersections and other danger areas.”



Execution is the specifics about how the mission is to be accomplished. It includes information about who will do what, the equipment and tools needed, and any subtasks that need to be assigned. It also tells crew members how to coordinate with other crews and complementary departments. For instance:

“If a snow emergency is declared this holiday weekend; we will meet at the county garage at the beginning of shifts and begin working in the designated 12-hour shift rotation until the snow emergency is lifted. At the beginning of each shift, route and task assignments will be given during the briefing but will generally follow standard operating procedures. If you get ahead on your route, call the shift foreman to see if other drivers need help. Ask for help if needed to quickly plow a busy section of road.”


Service Support

Service support explains the tools and logistics needed to accomplish the mission. For example:

“This weekend, if it’s not snowing yet, call your crew leader an hour before the beginning of each 12-hour shift for a status report. After the snow emergency is called, meet as usual at the county garage for a briefing at the beginning of each shift. Make sure your radios are working and carry the standard package of tools and emergency supplies. Don’t forget to take along easy-to-eat food and beverages for the long shifts. Foremen will be available to replace you during needed breaks.”


Command and Signal

Command and Signal explains the means of communication, the chain of command, and what to do if there is a break in the chain of command. For instance:

“Shifts start 30 minutes after the county administrator calls a snow emergency. When crews get out on the routes after the briefing, use your radios to communicate. The shift foreman will be in charge. If the foreman is not available, call the assistant shift foreman. To report traffic emergencies, call the sheriff’s dispatcher, which the foreman will be monitoring, and then call the foreman. Coordinate help to each other and with the deputy sheriff squad cars through the shift foreman.”

The five-paragraph order can be used for everything from deploying work crews, to planning a weekly meeting, to scheduling the office work week. SMESC is a tool to make sure you share everything needed for your crew to accomplish the mission. A clear order means all players know their roles, everyone knows how to handle changes in the situation, and all involved work toward the same strategic goal.

The key to SMESC is consistency: Everyone knows how directions will be delivered, how to deliver them, and what to ask for if something is left out. F


About the Author

Kenneth Stubbe is a Certified Economic Development and Finance Professional. He studied leadership and management in the U.S. Army and at business school.


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