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Focusing on the critical, not the urgent: the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Departments of the Army and Defense, or the U. S. Government.

"When you focus on the urgent tasks at hand, the critical tasks fall behind."

There simply isn't enough time to do everything that we want to do--so we must focus on the things that we must do. This is the prevailing idea that underpins several of our concepts in the Army, especially the concepts of the Mission Essential Task List (METL), the Commander's Critical Information Requirements (CCIRs), and the specific intelligence related concept of priority intelligence requirements (PI Rs). Each of these concepts are developed by the staff and approved by commanders to provide focus and unity of vision in a unit, describing the tasks and requirements that must be met.

Frequently, however, commanders and staff alike develop these great tools to provide focus on the critical tasks and then get consumed with the urgent tasks, the 25-meter targets that continually "pop up" and need immediate attention. Focusing on the urgent tasks, or even worse yet, trying to get everything done, ensures that the critical "must do" tasks will take a back seat. When everything seems to be the priority, there are no priorities.

At the beginning of his tenure, one of the generals on post stated that "great units do everything well--the grass in the unit areas is cut, the motor pools are policed, PT scores are high, and soldiers look good." Net result: training and the important warfighting tasks were put on the back burner, and visible appearance issues became the priority for some units. No doubt that's not what the general meant, but it's what he got because of his stated definition of a great unit.

The real question is how do units focus on the critical? Here are some steps to help maintain that focus:

[] Commander's involvement. The PIR cannot just be what the intelligence officer developed; they have to be approved by a commander who is actively involved in the development of the PIR. After all, they are the commander's, not the staff's PIR. Commanders have to be deeply involved in METL development; they have to ensure that the METL is an accurate reflection of the truly important tasks for the mission. In the same way, the CCIR has to be what the commander truly needs to know for mission accomplishment.

[] Keep the critical lists (METL, CCIR, PIR) to a minimum. Preferably the METL and PIRs should be no more than five to six different items, which is a number low enough that they can be easily communicated and remembered. CCIRs (which includes PIRs and Friendly Force Information Requirements, or FFIRs) should be no more than ten items. Staff officers should be able to give the METL of a unit off the top of their heads; intelligence analysts should be able to tell you what the PIRs are without having to refer to a piece of paper. Battle Captains and Battle Staff NCOs should be able to tell you what items are on the CCIR. If these lists are not inherently known or understood, then the risk is that the focus will be lost in training and operations.

[] Identify non-critical tasks. Tasks which are not critical have to be explicitly identified. This is the hardest task, as well as the task that is rarely done. To ensure that you do not focus on everything, it is wise to determine those things that can be handled by a standing operating procedure (SOP), or are tasks of lesser importance (such as Intelligence Requirements, or IRs). It's also not a bad idea to identify those tasks that simply will not be done because they detract from the real priorities. There will never be enough intelligence assets to provide surveillance everywhere, so it makes sense to identify where there will be intelligence gaps. You cannot train on everything, so it is best to identify those areas you simply will not commit training resources and time to. Commanders also have to be involved in this process. In some cases, this will involve risk; in other cases, it is a case of common sense. If commanders don't get involved in determining priorities and where risk is assumed, subordinates will do it by necessity.

At the monthly G3/S3 conference at the division headquarters, the division Commander addressed the S3s throughout the division and told them, "I know I've given you a hundred balls to juggle and keep up in the air--but you don't have the authority to drop a single one of them." For the remainder of the CG's tenure, the standard greeting among S3s in the division was "hide the dropped balls."

[] Reassess continually. Priorities change, and so our lists of priorities must be continually updated. METLs must be assessed continually--not just for training status but also for relevance to the wartime mission. PIRs and CCIRs must also be assessed continually, as some requirements are fulfilled and other requirements become more important. The assessment must be continual, and there has to be a set time to address whether or not the priorities are still correct.

[] Remind constantly. Even though staff officers should be able to recite the METL off the top of their heads, it's also best to keep constant reminders evident. PIRs should be posted in prominent places.

This helps to ensure that the reassessment is continual and provide a constant reminder of the priorities in the unit.

Mission Essential Task List (METL)

Field Manual 7-0, Training the Force, provides the doctrinal basis for determining the METL. Paragraph 3-1 in FM 7-0 states "the commander must identify those tasks that are essential to accomplishing the organization's wartime operational mission." Tasks are kept to a minimum; paragraph 3-3 states that "the METL development process reduces the number of tasks the organization must train and focuses the organization's training efforts on the most important collective training tasks required to accomplish the mission"; paragraph 3-16 states that the commander "narrows down the list of all derived tasks to those tasks critical for mission accomplishment." Doctrine also addresses those tasks that are "urgent, but not critical" in paragraph 4-16:
 Senior leaders at all echelons eliminate
 nonessential activities that detract from METL-based
 training. In peacetime, however, certain
 activities occur that do not directly relate to an
 organization's wartime mission but are important
 to other Army priorities. Senior leaders limit
 these peacetime activities to the maximum extent
 possible. Those that are absolutely essential
 are included in long-range planning documents.
 When assigned these activities, commanders
 continually seek mission related training

Finally, there must be constant reassessment and reminding of the METL within an organization. Paragraph 3-4 states that applying the METL development "provides a forum for professional discussion and leader development among senior, subordinate and adjacent (peer) commanders concerning the linkage between mission and training; enables subordinate commanders and key NCOs to crosswalk collective, leader and individual tasks to the mission; and leads to 'buy-in' and commitment of unit leaders to the organization's training plan."

Commander's Critical Information Requirements (CCIR)

Field Manual 3-0, Operations, and Field Manual 5-0, Army Planning and Orders Production, provide the doctrinal basis for determining CCIRs. Paragraph 11-39 in FM 3-0 states, "the commander's critical information requirements are elements of information required by commanders that directly affect decision making and dictate the successful execution of military operations." Paragraph 11-40 in FM 3-0 states that "CCIR directly support the commander's vision of the battle, commanders develop them personally," while paragraph 3-26 in FM 5-0 states clearly that "CCIR belong to the commander alone." Paragraph 11-40 in FM 3-0 defines CCIR as "two types of supporting information requirements: friendly force information requirements (FFIR) and PIR," although Joint Doctrine in Joint Publication (JP) 3-0 (Revision First Draft) on page 111-41 states that for CCIR "the key subcomponents are priority intelligence requirements, friendly force information requirements, and essential elements of friendly information (EEFI)."

Doctrine also addresses keeping the CCIR to a minimum. JP 3-0 (RFD) states that CCIR "are normally limited in number." FM 5-0, in paragraphs 3-25 and 3-26, states that "in all cases, the fewer the CCIR, the better the staff can focus its efforts and allocate scarce resources" and to "keep the number of recommended CCIR to a minimum." Paragraph 3-79 of FM 5-0 provides specific information by stating "the CCIR should be limited to 10 or less at any given time to enhance comprehension."

CCIRs should also help to determine those items that are not critical; paragraph 3-29 in FM 5-0 states "CCIR also help screen the type and amount of information reported directly to the commander." Both FM 3-0 (paragraph 11-41) and FM 5-0 (paragraph 3-29) emphasize focusing on critical information by stating that "CCIR must be focused enough to generate relevant information. Unfocused requests, such as "I need to know if the enemy moves," may provide data but not much useable information." Paragraph 3-79 in FM 3-0 also indicates the coordination that is inherent in CCIR by helping to "focus the efforts for his subordinates and staff, assist in the allocation of resources, and assist staff officers in making recommendations."

Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR)

Field Manual 2-0, Intelligence, provides the doctrinal basis for determining PIR. As a subset of CCIR, PIR also belong to the commander. Paragraph 1-32 in FM 2-0 states that "the commander designates intelligence requirements tied directly to his decisions as CCIR," while paragraph 1-33 states that the PIR do not become CCIR "until approved by the commander." Since PIR belong to the commander, paragraph 1-33 also recognizes that "the commander may unilaterally designate PIRs."

As noted above, paragraph 3-79 of FM 5-0 provides specific information by stating "the CCIR should be limited to 10 or less at any given time to enhance comprehension." Since PIR are a subset of CCIR, this leaves the "fair share" of PIR to five or six requirements. One way to keep this number down is to ensure that PIRs are specifically associated with a decision to be made by the commander (FM 2-0, paragraph 1-32).

Identifying non-critical tasks is probably the most difficult in PIR development. Intelligence requirements (IR) are developed and the critical requirements, in the eyes of the commander, are designated as PIR. The tendency is to develop a detailed list of all of the possible requirements and then to send these requirements out to the collectors, who in turn feel that they have been tasked to "collect on everything." The key issue is that collectors need to know when to move on to the critical, and leave the urgent (or even worse, the available) behind.

Reassessment of PIR should also be continual. The use of the "latest time information is of value" (LTIOV) helps to assist this process. PIR and IR should be continually updated to reflect when requirements have been met or when the requirement no longer exists.


These steps should help you focus on the critical tasks at hand and not dwell on the urgent:

[] Commander's involvement.

[] Keep the critical lists (METL, CCIR, PIR) to a minimum.

[] Identify non-critical tasks.

[] Reassess continually.

[] Remind constantly.

These steps will not always keep you focused, but they will go a long way to keep priorities straight. The Army's Leadership Manual, FM 22-100, states in paragraphs 5-28 and 5-29 that--
 As a leader, you must also set priorities. If you
 give your subordinates a list of things to do and
 say "They're all important," you may be trying to
 say something about urgency. But the message
 you actually send is "I can't decide which of these
 are most important, so I'll just lean on you and see
 what happens." Sometimes all courses of action
 may appear equally good (or equally bad) and
 that any decision will be equally right (or equally
 wrong). Situations like that may tempt you to sit
 on the fence, to make no decision and let things
 work themselves out. Occasionally that may be
 appropriate; remember that decision making
 involves judgment, knowing whether to decide.
 More often, things left to themselves go from bad
 to worse. In such situations, the decision you
 make may be less important than simply deciding
 to do something. Leaders must have the personal
 courage to say which tasks are more important
 than others. In the absence of a clear priority, you
 must set one; not everything can be a top priority,
 and you can't make progress without making


[] FM 2-0, Intelligence, 17 May 2004.

[] FM 3-0, Operations, 14 June 2001.

[] FM 5-0, Army Planning and Orders Production, 20 January 2005.

[] FM 7-0, Training the Force, 22 October 2002.

[] FM 22-100, Army Leadership: Be, Know, Do, 31 August 1999.

[] Joint Publication 3-0 (Revision First Draft), Doctrine for Joint Operations, 15 September 2004.

Colonel (Retired) Jack Kem is an Associate Professor in the Department of Joint and Multinational Operations at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He served as a Battalion S2. G2 Plans Officer, DTOC Support Element Chief, and Battalion XO in the 82d Airborne Division: as a Brigade S2 in the 3d Infantry Division, as a Company Commander and Battalion S3 in the 3d Armored Division, and as the Battalion Commander of the 319th MI Battalion, XVIII Airborne Corps. Colonel (Retired) Kem graduated from MI Officer Advanced Course, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Air Command and Staff College, the Joint Forces Staff College, and the Army War College. He holds a BA from Western Kentucky University, an MPA from Auburn University at Montgomery, and a PhD from North Carolina State University. Readers may contact the author via email at
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Author:Kem, Jack
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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