Book Review: TEMPO Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative Driven Decision Making by Venkatesh Rao


I describe this book “Tempo: Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative Decision Making” as insightful and though provoking.  It is a book that will take those of us wanting to improve situation awareness and decision making under pressure on a journey to developing, creating and nurturing the attributes and skills necessary in doing so.

The book is influenced by Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Boyd, Gary Klein and Malcolm Gladwell to name a popular few who study and develop decision makers. The author blends these influences with his thoughts and insights on decision making in an outstanding way telling me he understands the big picture, the moral, mental and physical dimensions decisions are made in and he does so very nicely.

The author of Tempo, Venkatesh Rao a man I have never met or heard of prior to the book, began research into decision making that was funded by the United States Air Force and concerned key concepts such as mixed initiative command and control models: complex systems where humans, autonomous robotic combat vehicles and software systems share decision making authority. This research led Rao to this insightful 157 page book, packed full of useful information all law enforcement and security professionals should read.

The book is also very much inspired by the decisions of everyday life and the examples he uses to make his points come from the arena of everyday, making the sometimes difficult to explain lessons (emotion and timing, situation awareness, fluidity what he calls going with the flow, pace setting, dissonance, and the skill of putting it all together with a sense of timing needed in solving complex problems, very approachable, understandable and transferable to training programs and the street.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life. Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; And we must take the current when it serves,  Or lose our ventures.” ~Julius Cesar, Act IV, Scene 3

Rao, has great insights into how we develop mental models and their usefulness in developing situation awareness he describes as; “our subjective sense of the immediate relevance and quality of an active mental model: an unwieldy dynamic and partially coherent construct that represents our understanding of a particular class of situations.” In short our “orientation” or how we individually and collectively see a situation. This in my view expounds on the importance of experience and lessons learned. Lessons learned from every day interaction. There is power in leveraging every lesson!

In the chapter he titled Narrative Rationality described as; “an approach to decision making that starts with an observation that is at once trivial and profound: all our choices are among life stories that end with our individual deaths. Surprisingly, this philosophical observation leads to very practical conceptualizations of key abstractions in decision making, such as strategy and tactic, and unique perspectives on classic decision-science such as risk and learning.” Orientation and the factors Boyd discuss that shape and reshapes orientation; cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experiences, new information and analysis and synthesis all play a roll here. He goes on to say that the simple view “calculative rationality” or planning is not wrong, it’s just limited to simple situations that fits one or more of your existing mental models very well. In complex situations, planning based on such models is merely a training exercise to sample the space of possible worlds, get a sense of the complexities involved, and calibrate your responses appropriately. This is what Eisenhower when he said, “plans are nothing, planning is everything.” He also quotes Marc Anderson the creator of the Web browser Netscape:

“The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.”

Narrative rationality is based on a very different foundation, the structure of stories.

“Narrative rationality is the ability to think, make decisions, and act in ways that make sense with respect to the most compelling and elegant story that you can improvise about a developing enactment.”

This is a powerful chapter that breaks down the differences between linear processes (calculative rationality) and the non-linear (narrative rationality) very important to understand in real time dynamic encounters.

The importance of the explorer mentality is highlighted in the book.

“We have identified learning, in the most general sense, as the process of constructing a mental model from scratch. This process is open ended and has no goals beyond hardwired biological ones. It is unsupervised, uncertain, unbounded, unstructured, and mostly unrewarding. In more familiar terms, there are no teachers, safety belts, syllabi, grades or prizes.

Given these characteristics, it should not be surprising that it is a very disorientation and stressful phase in a deep story. Things you don’t know that you don’t know (unknown-unknown beliefs) dominate the situation.”

This above attributes should sound very familiar to those in the law enforcement and security world as they permeate many encounters and interactions as we accord with an adversary.

He discusses entropy, the friction and difficulty of putting it all together as we attempt to observe, orient, decide and act in unfolding circumstances.

“The anxiety and incoherence of exploration cannot increase indefinitely. Whether or not we have enough information to act effectively, the sheer cognitive stress of exploration makes us seek relief, even when it takes the form of safe play among children. Our minds demand relief, and this leads to the moment I call the cheap trick, when the trajectory of increasing dissonance and entropy is arrested and turned around. The moment occurs when you recognize exploitable patterns in the raw material you have collected in your exploration.

Picture the stress level you have as you respond to a call and approach a potentially dangerous situation. Emotions are high, situation awareness is low. Who is setting the pace, the “TEMPO” of the encounter, you or your adversary? Now! How do you disrupt the flow and change the TEMPO? Do you even recognize the changes in TEMPO? If so is the TEMPO change to your advantage or disadvantage? What decision will you make next? Will that decision be based on some policy and procedure or will it be based on you ability to explore and gain more information before you act? Will your next action be one that is beneficial allowing you to safely and effectively solve the problem or will it be a decision that is detrimental to your safety? You are there. You have to act. Will the action you take be based on decision making abilities you posses, the tactic you choose or will it be based on an emotional response, luck or beating the odds?

“As you may have guessed by my introducing the notion of entropy into our discussion, we are working towards a way to correct this unnatural state of affairs. We are going to start thinking of time in terms of a unidirectional phenomenon, entropy. It won't be even or continuous, but as we will see, those requirements are only critical for calculative rationality. Narrative rationality necessitates a bumpy, uneven ride."

The book, Tempo: Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision Making will help you learn the problems and solutions that surround decision making. In my view if you take the time to read it, digest and think about the numerous concepts that surround decision making exposed in this book, you be much safer and much more effective on the street. I highly recommend this book. Be sure to check out as well.

Stay Oriented!