Organizations Can Seize Their Futures 500 Days at a Time

June 2008
By Lt. Gen. Harry D. Raduege Jr., USAF (Ret.)

Various mechanisms exist to achieve success, but the power and benefit of 500-day plans have been proven repeatedly. Organizations can use this approach to plan and quantitatively measure the success of transformational activities even during the most dynamic of times.

I can speak of the benefits firsthand. When I was assigned as the director of command and control systems at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in June 1995, I found a command with primary headquarters in Florida and main area of responsibility (AOR) in the Middle East—a separation of nearly 9,000 miles. Personal computers were almost nonexistent across the AOR and in limited use within the headquarters itself, where they were connected over a secure local area network. The only computer terminal outside the headquarters building was located in a highly secure war room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and it was not even being used—it was covered with a sheet. In reality, CENTCOM’s primary means of communicating within the command and with outside activities, such as the Pentagon, was with the Red Switch secure telephone network and secure fax machines. Certainly something needed to be done to bring CENTCOM into the digital age. A new architecture was required and, because of the mission complexity and vastness of the AOR, the cost of building a computerized command and control network would be significant.

From past experience, I estimated that my tenure in the job would be approximately two years, and the first six months would involve figuring out how the command worked. This left only 18 months to design a new architecture, determine equipment requirements, develop a plan, build the budget and start implementing numerous system upgrades to technology-enable this critically important command. We knew that the price tag would be staggering, but we had to begin taking action to transform CENTCOM for the information age. We also realized that game-changing advancements in information technology brought major performance improvements every 18 months. So, considering these two 18-month factors, it seemed appropriate to develop some sort of 18-month plan for getting things done. It also seemed more time-responsive to explain our efforts in a 500-day action plan rather than in an 18-month plan or in the typical organizational five-year strategic plan.

The CENTCOM 500-day action plan was signed by the commander in chief (CINC), and it directed the components to comply with this plan for transformation. It included a CINC-endorsed vision, mission statement, strategic objectives, individual tasks, names of people responsible and time frames for achieving success. This plan was so successful in delivering improvements through 91 individual programs, projects and tasks that a second plan quickly followed in late 1997 to continue the momentum. Over the years, CENTCOM continued to improve operationally through eight subsequent 500-day action plans. Each built on the progress of previous plans and took into account the changes in the AOR footprint, politics, reorientation, mission and the explosion of information technology capabilities that change the global landscape. The eight successive CENTCOM 500-day action plans—supported by five different four-star combatant commanders—flexibly enabled technology insertion to serve changing operational requirements with the best commercial tools. Together, these plans resulted in 12 years of focused activity that transformed CENTCOM’s command and control capability.

Four years after initiating the first 500-day action plan—which focused on internal improvements at CENTCOM—we found an opportunity at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to use this successful methodology. We wanted DISA to become more customer focused by implementing needed improvements throughout the globally dispersed agency. In this application, our 500-day action plan was externally focused to improve DISA’s global customer support with measurable milestones. When it comes to national security, no people or organizations are more important than DISA’s customers: the president, secretary of defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, combatant commands (COCOMs), military services and defense agencies.

The 500-day planning process was so successful that three subsequent plans were used to transform the way DISA performs as a combat support agency. Along with many customer compliments, perhaps the most impressive endorsement of this methodology came when the Joint Staff conducted interviews with every COCOM and stated its findings in the 2005 Combat Support Agency Review Team report: “DISA Director continued his very successful ‘500-Day action plan’ program where mutually agreed-upon issues are resolved in that period. DISA resolved 134 of 140 issues in the 2002 plan and 107 of 109 issues in its 2004 plan. COCOMs are very supportive of DISA’s 500-day action plan process and its continuance.”

Some benefits realized by the 500-day planning process include transition planning, team building, customer focus, bridging immediate needs with strategic objectives, leadership oversight, improved customer relations, organizational transformation, change management, historical documentation and operational success based on measurable objectives driven by customer inputs.

Since 1996, other organizations have used a 500-day action planning process to transform and improve their organizations both internally and externally. The U.S. European Command, the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force Communications Agency, the U.S. Army, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and others all have profited from the power and benefit of 500-day plans.

Lt. Gen. Harry D. Raduege Jr., USAF (Ret.), is chairman of the DeloitteCenter for Network Innovation.