Surviving Christmas with Military Planning

It may not be an austere setting, but if you’re hosting a family ‘get-together’ this Christmas, your home may very quickly resemble a warzone. These are my Top 10 planning tips to get you through the Festive Season:

  1. Plan early, plan twice. As this military adage suggests, you would should allow plenty of time to make your plan as well as execute it. Last Minute dot com may cut it as a website, but it won’t see you through the holidays unscathed.  Have a contingency plan and be prepared to enact it in the event of your cooker blowing up or your much-loathed long lost cousins turning up.  I would like to emphasise that I  can’t tell you what that contingency plan should be, only that you should have one.  As they say at the Joint Services Command and Staff College; this is about how to think, not what to think.
  2. Set a timeline. Christmas Day is a complex event.  You know that you want to deliver the Turkey to the table at 1300hrs so that everyone can eat drink and be merry before settling down to watch Star Wars at 1530hrs. To make sure that you maintain the initiative, you must plot the key events on a horizontal line and work back from them – the meat, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, Christmas Pudding all take different times to cook so be prepared and do the maths. Don’t forget to factor in Big Bird’s defrost time if you’ve purchased a frozen Turkey. Although for the adults, the day revolves around food and drink, little ones have a different agenda. You may consider plotting a separate timeline for the kids and running it in tandem.  Add oldies into the equation and you may need a third timeline.  Plot the key events for all (dishing up, present-giving etc.) and make sure the separate timelines for each group converge at these times. Military planners call this a synchronisation matrix.
  3. Analyse the Human Terrain. Okay, so let’s be brutally honest.  If your family is going to survive the holidays intact, you are going to need the skills of an accomplished peacekeeper in a vicious inter-factional war. Period. If grandparents are going to be present, you can bet your bottom dollar that you and your siblings will revert to caricatures of your juvenile selves in their presence.  Sometimes the different factions manage this themselves by creating enclaves (the Smiths remain in the living room and the Joneses camp out in the dining room), but this is not a given and they will all have to come together at the dining table.  Work out the Friendlies, the Hostiles and the Neutrals; differentiate between those with reconcilable and irreconcilable differences and plan your seating arrangements accordingly.  Work out who the key leaders are and influence them (plying them with drink usually helps too).  Just remember that nobody will ever forget that time that Uncle Bob got drunk and insulted Aunty Judy’s prize begonias and that you must keep these two warring factions as far apart as possible; perhaps you might want to suggest that one Uncle Bob goes to his in-laws for Christmas and visits you at New Year instead.  If you have more than one dog in the house, do a doggie terrain analysis too.
  4. This will be tough, there will be casualties. You might have the best operational plan, but if you don’t have a sound medical plan, your troops will lack confidence in the system that is there to care for them.  Anticipate the following:
    1. Penetrating trauma – from broken glasses and clumsy post-imbibement knifework.
    2. Blunt trauma – usually from child-on-child / child-on-adult combat.
    3. Eye trauma – from flying champagne corks and nerf darts.
    4. Psychological trauma / battle fatigue – the hosts are the primary ‘population at risk’.
    5. Disease and Non-Battle Injury – alcohol intoxication, abdominal pain, acute exacerbations of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases such as ‘flu may rear their ugly heads during your Christmas operation.
  5. Delegate responsibility. You are the commander – the responsibilities rest on your shoulders, but you can’t possibly do everything.  You need to appoint a second-in-command / Chief of Staff. Allocate tasks, provide the resources required and trust everyone to do their jobs, but do check on their progress.  You will probably find that there is no shortage of willing volunteers.
  6. Work out phases. There should be a natural and sequential phasing to your Christmas.  Consider using the concepts of Preparatory Operations, Shaping Operations, Decisive Operations and Stabilisation Operations to guide your thinking.
  7. Sustainment. Someone once said that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics. Thankfully it’s not the 1970s and you will probably find that the shops are open until late on Christmas Eve and you may even be able to get some emergency supplies on Christmas Day. If you have planned well, you will have established stocks of essential supplies (food, drink, wrapping paper, sellotape, toilet paper, kitchen roll, batteries etc.) throughout your house using the echelon system, which might look like this:
  • F (Fighting) Echelon – everything you need to sustain you through the contact battle – located in the kitchen, living room and dining room. Emergency rations will usually be found wrapped in foil and dangling from the branches of the Christmas Tree
  • A1 Echelon – immediate resupply of F Echelon consumables, located in the spare bedroom, home office, and pantry/larder.
  • A2 Echelon – replenishes A1 Echelon stocks. Located in the garage and shed.
  • B Echelon – replenishes A2 Echelon stocks. Longer lead time for obtaining these items. Typically located at Waitrose, Tesco, Aldi or Lidl. Urgent operational requirements can usually be obtained at the 7-11.
  1. Training.  You need to get into serious shape for Christmas Day, if you eat healthily and drink sparingly throughout most of the year, use the December party season to get into tip-top shape to ensure that you can cope with a gargantuan dinner and don’t resemble an empty wetsuit that is burbling nonsense after your first glass of ‘vino di collapso’.
  2. Remember Murphy’s Laws. From “the box said it came with batteries” to, “unwrapped at 0600hrs, not working by 1600hrs” and “the bloody Turkey’s still frozen” remember that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Fans of Clausewitz will recognise this as friction and the fog or war.
  3. The Decisive Act. Known to devotees of Clausewitz as ‘schwerpunkt’, there will be a decisive act which determines the outcome of your Christmas. In an ideal world, if you have planned well, it will be the delivery of a perfect dinner in a harmonious atmosphere with smiling happy children, all pleased with their presents. In the real world, this is less likely (just remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy). For many of us the Decisive Act will be when, faced with chaos and carnage, we decide to “stuff the Turkey and drink the wine.”

© Barry Alexander 2016

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