Part 3: Critical Decisions Making: Under Pressure:Creating and Nurturing the Decision Making Environment

Complexity of Decisions

We discussed the Recognized Primed Decision Making and the importance of understanding and utilizing the Boyd Cycle to process implicit and explicit information in parts one and two of this article on critical decision making. In parts 1 and 2, we used several examples of where and how this applies to the everyday work we do. We also discussed two ways we process information analytically, when time is plenty and risk is lower, as well as intuitively made decisions when time is scarce and risk is high. This leads to an understanding that critical decisions can be complex especially in environments where there is conflict and competitive minds collide.

We often after a decision is made, struggle to explain our responses appropriately. Decision makers have problems articulating their decisions and actions. And those who review the decision, struggle to understand the action. This leads to unnecessary suspicion from investigators and frustration on the part of the decision maker. This fact creates problems in the individual decision maker, making future decisions, as well as effects the whole organizations decision making capabilities, why? There is confusion, uncertainty and mistrust over what is a good or bad decision. Officers are often told they made a bad decision, are disciplined over it and told to “get out there and handle it right the next time.” No explanation as to why the decision was bad or how he/she may do it better, just get out there and do what’s right! This is unacceptable, this creates friction, the slowing down of the decision making cycle, which is both dangerous and leads to an ineffective organization. Not acceptable in professions where life and death are part of the mix. We must seek more knowledge and understanding of how conflict unfolds and how we make decisions, if we are to be more effective at making and reviewing them.

We use Complexity theory in an effort to understand the dynamic nature of conflict and decision making. “Briefly put, complexity theory postulates how complex systems are capable of generating simple patterns, and conversely, how simple systems are capable of displaying complex behaviors.” (Vandergriff, Raising the Bar Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War, 2006) We must have some understanding of complexity theory and how it relates to the complex nature of humans and human behavior in competitive environments, if we are to explain or gain understanding and comprehension of the environment, behaviors and events around us. “What’s happening now?”

This definition of complexity fits perfectly in the world of law enforcement and security where rapid decisions making is necessary to fulfill our obligations to protect and serve the community or organization. To perform a decision in a competitive environment or, to understand what happened, if you are reviewing or investigating the circumstances surrounding a decision, you must take into consideration that conflict is a complex phenomenon full of uncertainties, and a vast array of other problematic factors that cause friction and slow decision making down. That small change in the individuals, the environment and in the situation itself can produce significantly larger outcomes, like winning or losing, life or death.

I want to focus on how we can effectively create an environment of good decision makers. An organization must develop sound decision makers in an environment that includes ongoing development through innovative training and the nurturing of strong character. Strength of character is the bedrock of rapid decision making.


One of the best resources I have read on the training and leadership aspects of developing rapid decision making is Don Vandergriff’s book; Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability in the Changing Face of War. Vandergriff has spent years researching and fine tuning his methods of learning and education in the United States Army. His leadership model called Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM) for developing rapid decision makers is now being accepted by the U.S. Army, specifically at the United States Military Academy at West Point New York in the Department of Military Instruction. After all is said and done what we do in rapidly changing circumstance is to think on our feet, “Adapt”!

Adaptability is defined as “an effective change in response to an altered situation. Adaptability is not speed of reaction, but the slower, more deliberate processes associated with problem solving.” (Vandergriff, 2006) To be effective on the street you must be able to process information under pressure quickly but deliberately. Through continual development with varied scenarios and constant feedback from mentors, peers and instructors, people learn to pick up on signs and signals that signify change is taking place, and then be able to respond accordingly. The type of development Vandergriff speaks of enables an individual to synthesize multiple courses of action faster in a given situation, and then pick an appropriate one, then act on it. This is the orientation part of Boyd’s OODA loop, and it is the most important part. Once an individual orients on the key aspect of what they have observed, then, decide and act parts become easier.

To meet and deal with the types of crime, crime problems, conventional and unconventional threats we face, we must develop and nurture mutual trust and strength of character with in our organization and community to make effective decisions, especially decisions under pressure. “Raising the Bar” describes key characteristics of adaptive individuals. Which I agree is critical to posses if we are to be successful and change the internal and external culture which affects how we respond and deal with the serious issues we all face.

Vandergriff’s approach develops adaptability in leaders focusing on five areas:

Intuitive-this enables rapid decision-making without conscious awareness or effort;

Critical thinker- the ability to achieve understanding, evaluates viewpoints, and solves problems;

Creative Thinker-equally important, called fingerspitzenfuhl or the feeling in the tip of one’s fingers (Napoleon called it a “gut” feeling);

Self-Aware-an understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses;

Social Skills-the ability, to assess people’s strengths and weaknesses, the use of communication skills, and the art of listening

These characteristics are critical to being a good decision maker and adaptive individual. The characteristics listed above, have been talked about in the law enforcement and security professions for years. Let’s develop and etch them at the forefront of our minds by conducting valuable training and setting high standards that focus on these characteristics. As mentioned above there have been efforts made in the area of cognitive/physical training which use force on force role plays, simmunitions and simulators all great tools to enhance this effort. At the heart of all this training, or as Vandergriff says development, is the ability for instructors to facilitate the after action review after each event.

The problem we face in law enforcement and security is that the vast majority of officers do not receive the training due to budget constraints, short staffs and the nature of what we do (little time available), creating a shortfall on this great training reaching everyone who works the street. But the biggest obstacle to this type of development is cultural. Once again a mindset shift is needed in how and when we train to develop these characteristics and skills necessary. But, surprisingly, as advanced as Vandergriff’s model appears to be, it requires little resources, just very good instructors who understand its principles and how to teach within the framework of Boyd’s OODA loop.

Mindset Shift…Take Advantage of Time!

COL John Boyd described conflict as “time competitive” observation, orientation, decision and action cycles (Boyd, December 1986)…discussed above in part 1. These time competitive cycles should also be considered in preparation for future encounters, taking advantage of available time on shift to train and develop decision makers.

Most agencies do not spend the time or money on training frontline personnel. Those agencies that do, send their personnel to training send them to a one day, two day, or week long training classes that use out of date methods of learning, i.e., competency theory focused on short term memorization presented using power point lectures etc. These types of training classes are good for short term accomplishment, and do not promote long term continued learning. Problem here is, two-fold (1) training is conducted with outdated learning models and (2) in most cases you cannot afford to send enough personnel to get an organizational benefit from the training. If your agency can afford it, and send everyone, you can only send, once, with no follow-up. Problem with this is, the skills learned; perish quickly due to lack of conditioning through repetitive training. The benefits of cognitive and physical training are perishable, so if we are to be successful in creating and nurturing these skills it takes repetition and constant work if there is to be any real long term benefits.

The “shift of mindset” comes into play when changing a culture. There are numerous examples of how this shift in culture can occur, such as take advantage of downtime during a working shift, such as roll call, to train. Extend roll calls or guard mount time by 15-20 minutes, use uncommitted time on the shift to conduct a mini-training scenario with Tactical Decision Games (TDGs). Another aspect is doing it during physical training. Vandergriff has written an entire annex in a handbook on how to develop adaptability while developing the physical aspect of our profession. Yes, some of this development is up to “individual initiative!”

Creating Decision Makers with Tactical Decision Games (TDGs)

Highly effective method of training that develops rapid decision making is a tool called the tactical decision game (TDG) or decision making exercise (DME). This is a critical piece of Vandergriff’s training methodology with the military. He has achieved great results in using these games to develop decision makers who will demonstrate adaptability in combat. He has received great feedback from those serving overseas to the benefits of the TDG’s in creating decision makers performing for high stakes and under high pressure.

Tactical decision games are situational exercises on paper representing a snap shot in time. A scenario is handed out that describes a problem related to your profession (law enforcement, security, military, business, etc). The facilitator sets a short time limit for you to come up with a solution to the problem presented. The TDGs can be conducted individually or in a group setting. As soon as time is up, with the facilitator using “time hacks”, an individual or group is told to present their course of action. What you did and why? It is important that individuals or groups working together are candid and honest in their responses. You’re only fooling yourself to do otherwise. The lesson learned from the TDGs can make you more effective and safe in the performance of your job. The time to develop the strength of character and the courage to make decisions comes here, in the training environment. Mistakes can be made here that do not cost a life and valuable lessons are learned.

The key here is the facilitator/instructor whose job it is to insure responses are brought out and lessons are learned from the scenario. This can be done while working. I know because we have used them on my department and I have used them training security companies. It takes some effort, but can indeed be done.

The TDGs are effective at developing decision making in the field. In the few years we used TGDs in the Walpole police department, officers went from the initial thought of what are we doing this for? To getting involved and discussing strategy and tactics necessary to resolving the problem faced in the TDG setting. This evolved to applying what was learned, to the street under pressure. Tactical response and approaches to calls, communications, utilization of tactical basics such as; contact/cover principle and cover and concealment, approach strategies, perimeter containment and overall officer safety improved greatly utilizing these short scenarios. Knowledge of laws and policy and procedure improved by utilizing decision making exercises to fit legal and policy questions.

This simple tool works and works well. I use the term simple tool but, make no mistake, its work implementing and conducting these exercises. Developing scenarios and insuring appropriate lessons are learned takes thought and innovation to insure proper training is taking place. The instructor/facilitator needs to understand his job, is to draw out answers, not give them out. I must emphasize this point because; I have made that mistake in conducting the exercises. The goal is to make “decision makers” and “innovators”, not give answers, directions and create followers; we have enough of that in our professions already.

The TDGs are about developing individual, initiative driven frontline leaders who can make decisions that meet the mission of the agency. “TDGs are used to teach leaders how to think and to train and reinforce established ways of doing something, such as task training. The techniques can be traced back at least to the Chinese general and military theorist Sun Tzu, who was advocating their use more than 2,500 years ago.” (Vandergriff, From Swift To Swiss Tactical Decision Games and Their Place in Military Education and Performance Improvement, 2006 )

The decision making critique (DMC) or after action review (AAR) is another critical component to developing decision makers. The AAR is conducted after the decisions are made and discussed after student responses. This is where the instructor/facilitator again draws out lessons learned from the group critique. The facilitator keys on two aspects of the TDG, was the decision made in a timely manner? What was the rationale of the student or group in making their decision? As Vandergriff continues to drill into students that attend his workshop, “it is not about the tactics but the decisions” when facilitating the discussion of a TDG.

I have been asked how often you conduct the exercises. Keep in mind that the benefit of developing rapid decision makers comes from conditioning. Like anything else conditioning comes from repetition, but unlike task training (rote memorization), repetition means constantly changing the conditions while focusing on the five aspects of adaptability mentioned earlier. Realistically in an environment that has no specific training unit, and the person in charge of training has multiple tasks such as running daily operations, in charge of investigations, scheduling and frontline supervisory responsibilities it is challenging, but worth the effort to conduct these exercises. Here are some examples as to how a multi-tasking, understaffed agency can reap the benefits of conducting TDGs and developing adaptive personnel.

In our environment with shifts it’s tough to do TDGs daily, although it can be done. If it gets demanding and busy on the shift you “ADAPT” and handle the necessary call for service, then when things slow down get back at the TDG (we now always have one ready “opportunity training”). The method used in my department was 1 game per month, 12 training evolutions that were not taught elsewhere with numerous lessons learned, from each TDG. The training objectives and lessons learned, did improve decision making and the tactical mindset of officers with just 12 TDGs conducted. There was a significant difference in responses to calls and how they were handled.

How to conduct TDGs

Here is an example of a TDG.

It is 1AM. You receive a dispatch reporting prisoner escaped in a marked police unit, with a fellow officer’s gun. The suspect is a female emotionally disturbed prisoner who was returning after an evaluation from, the hospital transported by a fellow officer.

Ten (10) minutes later it’s reported she has shown up at her sister’s house that has custody of “her” child. She kidnaps her own child and shoots and kills sister’s family dog. She leaves the scene and comes into contact with a fellow officer responding to the location.

She drives at a high rate of speed towards this officer, hits the driver’s side door, officer jumped from and shoots at her but, misses. She continues to flee, crashes the car and then flees on foot with her child.

A search is commenced for 5 hours when she suddenly reappears in town, on the street, pointing the gun at police and her child who she is holding in her arms. She begins to laugh and taunt and makes statements “I will shoot you” and points the gun at those around, including her child and the news media that is on scene. From a car length away, you begin to negotiate. She then states I have ruined my life. You are fixing to work a murder suicide.

You then give instructions, how do you handle this situation? You have 30 second begin…

When the 30 seconds are up you pick individuals to give their responses. Get them up in front of the room (add a little pressure) and have them explain what they did and why. Do this individually with each participant. When all have completed get them as group to talk and critique each response. You will be amazed at what learning takes place.

You can also when time, is really tight do these TDGs in a group setting. Just give the group the scenario and begin a discussion as to how it’s handled. This is again Adaptability, changes do to “time” constraints, and we get the lessons in. Our jobs are about change and adapting to those changes. Take advantage of the time you have to better prepare for the dynamic encounters we are faced with.

Our goal should be to do more of this type of training. To take advantage of any down time available to get a TDG in, when staffed with appropriate numbers of properly trained instructors (minimum 1 per shift) you could easily do a game a week (52 per year) which would be, much more beneficial to all, individuals and agency. Take advantage of actual calls and the lessons learned from them by utilizing After Action Reviews, which in my mind is TDG in reverse. You actually made decisions and resolved the problem (real world lessons). There is no more valuable training evolution than to take actual experienced situation and break down the lessons learned and adapt the lessons to a future response… The TDGs work and work well at developing decision makers and enhancing knowledge from past training.

To bring the training program to an even higher level of learning programs of instruction should utilize the method, explained above, to build experiences, which turn into pattern recognition.

The full program s of instruction Vandergriff describes, consists of four primary pillars and includes the use of: (1) a case study learning method; (2) tactical decision games; (3) free play force on force exercises; and (4) feedback through the leader evaluation system.

This complete comprehensive program of instruction, unify the approaches above in accomplishing learning objectives, which include; Improving one’s ability to make decisions quickly and effectively; Making sense of new situations, seeing patterns, and spotting opportunities and options that was not visible before; Becoming more comfortable in a variety of situations; Developing more advanced and ambitious tactics; and Becoming more familiar with weapons capabilities, employment techniques, and other technical details. (Vandergriff, Raising the Bar Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War, 2006) Start with the case studies and TDGs and build upon the program to develop the best decision makers we can. From TDGs, you move into a force on force training environment, but all are followed by a facilitated AAR. The cost of not doing so is too high!

Mutual Understanding Community/Protectors: Training Those We Serve

An important piece of decision making is the necessary element of being able to explain our decisions. Explain them to folks in the community or organization who may not have a good understanding as to how we decide under pressure. In this article we discussed intuitive decisions based on implicit information gathered in high risk, little time available scenarios. We understand it, we know what we did and why, but still we have a difficult time explaining it to the world sitting in review from behind the desk in a safe environment, with plenty of time, analyzing the circumstances with an analytical mind. And explicit answers to our decisions are sought.

Why do we have this problem and how do we make those who do not do, what we do, understand? Perceptions and orientation of what we do is based as Boyd has stated on, past experience, genetic heritage, cultural traditions, and unfolding circumstances. (Boyd, December 1986) People see things, as they, view the world. Based on what Boyd has stated here in regards to how we orient (perceive) the world. Can we expect the citizens, to understand and make an appropriate judgment of our actions if most of their perceptions, of what we do come from, the abstract world of media, news, movies, television and print? If decisions of our actions are based on something they heard that has never been disproved or they have never experienced, how do they begin to understand it, in a way that the silent evidence (thought process, decision making, survival stress, etc.) is considered in the process? Again the process should be training, training and being more open and honest as to, what we do and why we do it.

As a community and a law enforcement organization we say we want to see and get to know or officers, yet if they stop, get out of their cars and have a conversation with someone they are seen as goofing off and not working. If they are seen in their cars parked on the roadside or in a parking lot conducting surveillance or traffic duties again the inference is, they are goofing off. These examples seem and are simplistic, yet they result in complaints, complaint investigations and at times, reprimands of individual officers. Officers in turn begin to see the community, whether a city or town or the occupants of a facility, they protect, as fickle minded. The community sees officers as out of touch. Leadership, community or organizational, get wrapped up in the politics of this and in short a great divide is formed which leads to distrust on both sides, a sad reality for those on both sides of the coin which in the end leads to poor results.

To do the job at hand protecting and serving, it is pretty much understood that the community as a whole, after all the police and security are part of the community, they work in, and we must work together. To do this there must be a better understanding of what each role is and that role is actual mutual. The community wants to be safe and law enforcement and security roles, are to make it that way. We are on the same page. So how do we get to the same paragraph on the page?

Training, education and learning is the key to closing this divide. This is nothing new; it’s been written and talked about in the law enforcement realm for more than 30 years. Although the foundation of experiential learning goes back centuries as Vandergriff explains in his research expounded upon in his article From Swift to Swiss Tactical Decision Games and Their Place in Military Education and Performance Improvement; “in the late 1700s, Pestalozzi developed his theory that students would learn faster on their own if allowed to “experience the thing before they tried to give it a name.” TDGs were used to sharpen students’ decision-making skills and to provide a basis for evaluating them on their character.” I find it both fascinating and alarming us (law enforcement and security professions), are just recently beginning to conduct this type of training that’s been around with documentation that it works and works well. A question of character and lack of knowledge seems to be the answer as to why we are not???

In fairness there has been a multitude of training classes on community oriented policing and problem oriented policing across the nation on the topic of building community trust. But not much of this training focuses on decision making under pressure in for example; use of force situations. Where training the population in use of force decision making has been conducted as in the LAPD program, there has been great results in bridging the divide between protection professionals and the community. It is a process of communicating and sharing information on both sides of the spectrum to help each understand what’s expected and how we go about doing our jobs effectively.

We must continue to bridge this gap between protector and the citizenry by agencies offering more of this training, such as citizen’s police academies, working with community groups, schools and things like Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC). In these groups all educate in their area of expertise, not to make experts, but to gain an understanding of what their goals and objectives are and then what methods are utilized in making decisions to help in understanding.

In the law enforcement and security fields we would put citizens and community leaders in circumstances we handle and have them role play them out. Or use TDGs to give them a feel for the types of decisions we make… Simple methods of education and learning, to bridge this gap which is critical if we want those to understand what it is we do and how we make decisions under pressure. This result in the community as a whole interested and involved and helps all understand the job we perform as well as the risks and consequences.

Adapting to the changing conditions is what makes a true professional. Doing things the way we have always done them is fool hearted and unprofessional. On the other hand change for the sake of change is as well just as fool hearted, but effective change to meet the challenges that lay ahead and prepare all for both conventional and unconventional problems and threats, will take strength of character and leadership, leadership from; frontline personnel, mid-level supervisors and administrators, as well as community and local government leaders to reach these goals.

Leadership Roles in the Decision Making Process

The main component in the development of good decision makers falls on the individual and individual efforts. Yes, but the climate for this development comes from the top, in leadership. To achieve the results sought after, if we truly want to call ourselves professionals and prepare for the challenges we face in the future, leaders must LEAD. It is the Leader’s role, to create and nurture the appropriate environment that emboldens decision makers. Leader development is two way, it falls on the individual, but the organization’s leaders must set the conditions to encourage it. “The aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures in men, but to remove the cause of failure.” (W. Edwards Deming)

“Leadership can be described as a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective, and directs his or her organization in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent.” (Vandergriff, Raising the Bar Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War, 2006) This is the definition we should subscribe to. However, all too often I have had both frontline personnel and mangers tell me that this cannot be done. “This type of training and developing initiative driven personnel will cause more problems for departments and agencies in dealing with liability issues and complaints because control is lost.” I wholeheartedly disagree with his sentiment.

The opposite is indeed the effect you get. This is not a free reign type of leadership. Matter of fact if done appropriately it will take more effort and time on your part as a leader, because you will be involved. Your training program will be enhanced and the learning that takes place unifies your agencies and all the individuals in it. How? Through the system described above which develops “mutual trust” throughout the organization because the focus is now on results. The “how to” is left to the individuals and the instructors. But a culture must exist to encourage what the Army calls outcome based training (Vandergriff Manning the Legions of the United States and Finding tomorrow’s Centurions).

Mutual trust (unity) in turn allows individuals to think and innovate when solving problems, because they know it is what’s expected. It’s known by all, they will be held accountable for their actions good and bad. And those leaders will be there standing with them in the aftermath of a good or bad decision and that everything will be done to learn from and adapt the lessons too future operations.

If we expect frontline personnel to go out and deal with dangerous circumstances and resolve them, they must be insured leadership will be doing all they can do to develop, nurture and stand behind decisions made. Also be willing to except responsibility when things go wrong. The world we work in, is complex and chaotic yet in the vast majority of situations we handle without drastic or tragic results. This is done with “very little training” in decision making. However in the less than one percent of the time for example a law enforcement officer uses force, leadership fails in backing an officer’s decision. Why? We could write another article on, politics, lack of knowledge in conflict, an unwillingness to take a stand on behalf of the decision maker, unwillingness to correct a obvious problem they observe, etc. etc. etc.

If you take on a leadership role, Then you must LEAD and have the strength of character to do what needs to be done in creating the appropriate environment. The single most reason for failure to make a decision I hear from those I train and speak with is “We will not get backed by our bosses!” These words are uttered not from the 10%, but from those who do care about what they do, yet feel for whatever reason they will not be backed after they have done what they have sworn or are duty bound to do in their efforts to resolve conflicts.

A leader’s role is to inspire others to complete the mission, whatever the mission is. It’s to develop unity and focus. It’s to hold themselves and others accountable for actions taken, rewarding good decisions and learning from and if warranted disciplining for bad decisions. This must be done fairly with integrity leading the way or we will not be prepared for the problems and threats that we will face. A leader’s role is to reduce friction in decision making of frontline personnel. Try it, I guarantee you will relish the benefits and results.

I would like to thank Don Vandergriff for all his insight and assistance into my writing this article. The numerous emails and phone calls interrupting his busy schedule, would be trying for most, yet Don always took the time to answer questions and give advice. Don you’re a true innovator and mentor. Many thanks!