Officer candidates receive a class.
Over the past year, I have had the fortune to attend two workshops led by Mr. Damien O’Connell. The first was during The Basic School’s Instructor Education Program 100 course; the second was a five-day decision-making, critical thinking, and adult learning workshop hosted by Officer Candidates School (OCS). In both instances, Mr. O’Connell presented the case method and decision-forcing cases (DFCs) through example, enlivening the room with historical storytelling, asking us to assume the role of a protagonist, and most crucially, forcing us to make decisions. DFCs put students in the role of a decision maker (living or dead) and present them with a decision, or series of decisions, to make as that figure. As a result of my experiences with DFCs, I am convinced that instructors and leaders can use them to enhance any class.
During these workshops, Mr. O’Connell presented a simple framework for developing cases. The framework is as follows.
1. Provide the “big picture” background
Provide the historical background to the case by describing when and where it takes place. Also provide information to historically situate the students. “It is late February 1776. The 13 Colonies wage a revolutionary war against Great Britain.”
2. Introduce your protagonist.
This is the decision maker. Provide background on who this person is, their position, and other pertinent information. “You are Captain Samuel Nicholas, the first commissioned officer in the Continental Marine Corps. You command two battalions of Marines.”
3. Narrow the scope of the DFC.
Add additional information to the initial background. Tie your protagonist to that background and develop the protagonist's situation. Introduce other personnel as necessary. Remind the students they have assumed the role of the protagonist. “Captain Nicholas, you and your Marines are conducting raids in the Chesapeake Bay alongside Commodore Esek Hopkins of the Continental Navy. You have just received intelligence of desperately needed gunpowder and military supplies on the British-held island of New Providence in the Bahamas.”
3. Present decisions the students must make.
Through historical context, interviews, research, etc., identify the decisions the protagonist had to make and force your audience to make them, too. Invite debate, critical thinking, creativity, and discussion. “Captain Nicholas, after receiving this news, what do you do? You decide to sail south to New Providence to conduct an amphibious raid. However, you soon learn that the island’s British forces have likely been tipped off about your intentions. What now, captain?”
In this format, DFCs are scalable from short 10–15-minute exercises to multi-day events facilitated through long-form narratives and many decision points. At the end of or during a DFC, the audience will be presented with the actual decisions made by the protagonist. Doing this either moves the narrative forward or concludes the case. The facilitator, however, does have the option to leave the outcome untold. Withholding “the rest of the story” can encourage students to think, discuss, and debate further.
Inspired by this form of facilitation, and as a current OCS staff member, I spent the last training cycle finding ways to introduce DFCs into the two periods of platform instruction I teach – Marine Corps History 1 and Fundamentals of Leadership 3. Fundamentals of Leadership 3 delves into the complicated and crucial relationship between officers and staff non-commissioned officers (SNCOs). Therefore, I turned to a retired SNCO mentor in the hopes of building a case. Below, I detail my process of building a DFC with a living source. This serves as a guide to future facilitators on how to do the same.
1. Find your source and get them on board.
If you use a DFC to teach a particular topic, ensure you have an appropriate source. I knew I wanted someone who could speak to the nuances of decision-making in austere environments. They also had to have lived the challenges of the SNCO/officer dynamic, so I identified a person with ample experience in these areas.
Ensure your source is comfortable sharing their experiences with you and potentially hundreds (even thousands) of strangers. DFCs rely on accurate storytelling, so this is a must. Also, remember that you might be asking your source about the worst day of their life. Act accordingly, be respectful, and know when to stop the process.
2. Provide your source with context.
After identifying my source, I sent him an outline of my class material. This outline went into depth on the topics I would cover in class before introducing the DFC.
I gave my source a week to review the outline so he could align his stories to the material. This way, I could build a case that was relevant and effective.
Interview your source. After giving him a week with the material, I called my source to discuss his thoughts and potential cases. We started with a discussion about the class material, and I asked if he had case ideas, which he did. He described the cases the material brought to mind, and I took notes as we spoke. During the interview, one of the stories stuck out to me as both suitable for a DFC and appropriate to my class. I identified this to my source, and we conducted a follow-up in-depth interview about that experience.
The phone interview process took approximately 2.5 hours.
3. Write a narrative of the case.
Following the interview, I wrote the case in story format. I identified the points where I would open the floor to discussion or decisions within these notes by highlighting them in bold. I identified portions of the case where I needed additional information or had questions in red.
I sent the narrative to my source so he could review and answer my questions.
4. Create accompanying media.
After receiving the narrative back with corrections, I built an accompanying PowerPoint to help tell the story of the DFC.
The PowerPoint was limited to images only. This was key. Large chunks of text often distract students and cause them to tune out. I included only small blocks of text to reiterate quotes from the narrative. I had slides with the decision points written on the screen while the candidates were given 1-2 minutes to determine their responses.
My source provided me with primary-source photographs, which helped immerse the candidates in the story and bring it to life.
Of note, media is not a requirement for DFCs, but it can help the audience “inhabit” the world and protagonist of the case.
After honing the narrative and creating the media, I started practicing the case, first on my own and then for two captains with whom I work to get initial feedback on delivery.
6. Present it to your source.
I scheduled a call with my source to share both the media and narrative of the case.
This step proved critical to ensuring that all my facts were accurate and that I was delivering the case in a manner true to the story of my source. My source identified two areas in my narrative that were inaccurate. After getting my facts straight, I revised the parts in question.
7. Present it to a wide variety of test audiences.
I knew the audience for my DFC was a room of over 300 Marine Officer Candidates whose backgrounds vary widely. Therefore, I wanted to make sure it would make sense to them. DFCs are not limited to military scenarios. But if they are tied to one, they should not be riddled with jargon, acronyms, or other potential barriers to learning for entry-level students.
I tested the DFC on two officers of different ranks, two senior SNCOs, two junior Marines, and my mom, a civilian with no military background.
Through these tests, I adjusted my media to make sure specific points were simplified or accompanied by imagery to explain better what was happening.
Critically, I determined that an audience of varying backgrounds and experience levels could answer the decision points provided. In addition, some of my test students' answers differed from those I had expected or thought of. Encountering these before the actual case presentation and considering them was invaluable.
8. Present the case.
I presented the case during the Fundamentals of Leadership 3 class. Fortunately, my source was present to speak to the candidates afterward. His remarks tied into the case and gave these future decision-makers the chance to hear from a SNCO who has worked, excelled, and led at some of the highest levels of the Marine Corps.
The author with the case protagonist, Master Gunnery Sergeant Hampton, USMC (Ret.)
The candidates' response was overwhelmingly positive. From my perspective, they were engaged for the entire case. At each decision point, I had more of them volunteering to give their plan than I had time to call on. Bringing in my source to talk to the candidates made the case real and was the highlight of the class.
The class instructor rating forms echoed my observations. Candidates commented, "This was the most meaningful class that we have had thus far at OCS,” and “This class helped with my understanding of how missions work, the chain of command, and the practical application of leadership and management. The talk from [the guest speaker] was the best part of the class since the beginning of OCS.”
In total, the case-building process took me approximately 30 hours. This includes both case development and rehearsals. It was a serious investment of time, but it was worth it. I created an interactive and memorable learning experience for the candidates and learned lessons on leadership, the SNCO/officer relationship, and decision-making. I will carry these with me as an officer and beyond.
For additional details on how I built this case or how to add the case method to professional military education programs, classes, or non-military settings, readers may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Bio: Captain Hoffman is currently a platoon commander at Officer Candidates School. Before her assignment there, she was the assistant logistics officer, Headquarters and Service Company commander, and maintenance management officer for Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (3/7). She deployed twice with The Blade in support of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin 22.2 and 20.2.
This is her first article for The Maneuverist.