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Re-engineering the Toolbox: Beyond The Cliché

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In an article that I wrote this past week for LawOfficer.com, here is the article, I open the post with a discussion about why I cringe when I hear an instructor say they are going to provide me with “another tool for my toolbox.” While often said with the best intentions, because that phrase implies that the instructor is giving their student some random fact or process that they expect the student to store away in their brain, those “tools” are rarely valuable since they could often only be applied in a very small set of circumstances. While the LawOfficer.com article provides a three-question process that helps students assess the value of a training program they are attending, our situational awareness and observation training program, the Tactical Analysis program, was built because having a higher quantity of narrowly applicable “tools” doesn’t necessarily ensure that you will be able to make better decisions in stressful situations. To make better decisions in the face of uncertainty and when solving challenging problems, it is time that we get beyond the cliché and reconsider the way we are building a protector’s toolbox.

Step One: Define the Tool’s Utility

As we look to select what type of tool to fill the metaphorical toolbox with, we first need a way to define the goal of a training program and how the program supports decision-making. While John Boyd’s OODA Loop is often taught in an overly simplified way when discussing decision-making, personally I like to use the OODA Loop as a way to consider the value a training program offers. The loop provides an explicit representation of what often occurs intuitively. The act of taking in facts and information from your surroundings (observing), making sense of those facts and considering the context surrounding them (orienting), making a hypothesis about what you can do (deciding) and testing that hypothesis (acting) is also what Dr. Gary Klein talks about in his recognition-primed decision-making model that has provided a great deal of insight to the way first responders recognize patterns and make decisions in uncertainty.

Even though the OODA Loop doesn’t provide an explanation about how to go through these four stages, a training program should be providing value and insight into at least one of these four areas. A course should do at least one of these things:

  • Help you take in higher quality information that the environment and the situation provide.
  • Help you make sense of that information more quickly or recognize a pattern from the provided information more accurately.
  • Help you make more informed hypotheses about what to do in the face of the contextualized information you now have.
  • Help you become more effective at implementing those decisions and taking action.

Before we talk about the benefits that understanding the universal and uncontrollable elements of human behavior empower our situational awareness with, showing where the Tactical Analysis program fits into this structure will help to provide context to steps two and three discussed below.

The behaviors and assessments that make up the four pillars of observable behavior taught in the Tactical Analysis program are designed to improve the “observation” phase of the OODA Loop. Each behavioral assessment that is taught becomes a fact and piece of information that can be determined. For example:

  • Is the collective mood of the area positive atmospherics or negative atmospherics?
  • Is the area being observed a habitual area or an anchor point?
  • Is the group of people you are observing people with an intimate relationship or are friends, colleagues or strangers?
  • Is the individual you are observing displaying the dominant, submissive, uncomfortable, or comfortable cluster?

Each of these observations are merely recognitions about the people around you. They are articulable assessments that can be made that jump start your decision making with quantifiable information designed to help a trained observer accelerate through the observation phase of the OODA Loop.

The Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure that gets taught throughout our program is designed to support the “orient” phase of the OODA Loop cycle. By forming a definition of the norm for the area and the people being observed through conscious and deliberate effort, we can improve the speed at which a trained observer can recognize the pattern for the area (the baseline) and identify the person who has broken from the pattern (the anomaly). By making the process of establishing a baseline explicit, we can quickly and accurately provide context to the behaviors and facts collected during the observation portion of the process in a way that is often left to a protector’s tacit understanding of the area. By making it explicit and articulable, we can also shorten the time required for people new to an area establish the baseline by providing that information in a simple, communicable, format. This process enhances the toolbox by structuring the pattern-matching function of our brains instead of simply waiting simply more years of experience to develop this ability naturally.

In the Tactical Analysis program when we teach our students about the decision tree that we recommend they employ once they recognize an anomaly, we are, as you might guess, focused on the “decision” portion of the OODA loop. For our military and law enforcement students, this is the kill-capture-contact decision tree that we teach as options available while still remaining left of bang. For our private security and education classes, these decisions are the control-call-contact decision tree that is taught for preventing violence. We intentionally limit the options available to an observer so that they don’t get stuck in “paralysis by analysis” that comes with having too many options available in any given situation.

Based on the information provided in the observe phase of the cycle (the observable behavior), and the context that is provided when determining if that behavior fits the baseline or is anomalous in the orient phase of the cycle, the protector is ready to test their hypothesis through action. While taking action also resets the observer to be beginning of the OODA Loop as they begin their observation in order to determine how successful they were, the behaviors taught also provided the protector with quantifiable feedback to let them know if their actions are effective or not. For example, if a person is trying to de-escalate a situation where they observed a person displaying the dominant cluster, recognized that dominance was outside of their baseline of the comfortable cluster, made the decision to contact the person, and began talking to them, the behaviors provide a feedback loop. If you observe the person being contacted now displaying the comfortable cluster, you will realize that de-escalation is working during the orientation phase of the cycle, decide to continue to conversation, and the cycle continues to repeat.

With that understanding about where the enhanced situational awareness tools taught in our program fit into an overall learning structure, we can now show why those behaviors and that process being broadly applicable are valuable.

Step Two: Determine if the Tool is Broadly or Narrowly Applicable

The second factor to consider when choosing which tools to prioritize comes from an assessment about whether they are narrowly applicable or broadly applicable. What I mean by this is whether the topic being taught in the training program or in the book works in almost every situation protectors find themselves in or if it only works in a select few situations.

When comparing the Tactical Analysis program against other behavior-based threat recognition programs, I often use the pre-event indicators that the Department of Homeland Security teaches as warning signs to violence. People in the workplace who are experiencing financial problems, marital problems, substance problems and come to work talking about their gun collection every single day are people that DHS says to consider as potentially becoming violent. While that very well might be true, there is a limitation to using those “behaviors” as warning signs. To have that information about a person requires you to have personal knowledge about someone before you can assess them as being a potential threat. This is a narrowly applicable tool because you would need a second tool to cover the gap for observing people who you don’t have any personal knowledge about.

When a protector relies on narrowly applicable tools, especially during the “observe” and “orient” stages of the process, it means that they end up slowing down their decision-making because, before they can begin observing, they first have to select which “tool” they will use to make those observations. This is something that is very important to consider because, in the time-constrained situations that often characterize the proactive recognition of violent people, there might not be enough time available to first choose the tool and then begin the observation process. That extra decision might create the time and the hesitation that the attacker needs to launch their assault.

In the Tactical Analysis program, the fourteen behavioral assessments that the four pillars of behavior are comprised of are broadly applicable. Because every single person can be assessed as being in one of the four clusters, that means that it works in any situation you find yourself in. They are observations that can be made up close during conversation, or from afar while looking at a group of people through binoculars from an observation post. They work when you know a lot about a person and when you know absolutely nothing about them. They can be detected from non-verbal behavior and from verbal communication.

By ensuring that your toolbox is originally built with broadly applicable tools, you can create opportunities for protectors to master processes and techniques that will work in numerous situations and ultimately speed up their decision-making process.

Step Three: Identify if There are Low Risk Opportunities to Master the Tool

The third thing to consider when determining which tools to prioritize in your newly prioritized toolbox is whether the skills taught in the class or in the book can be practiced in low risk settings. For the same reason you wouldn’t want the first time you fired a gun to be when you are in a gun fight, you want to make sure that the tools you are focusing on can be mastered and perfected in low risk situations. In addition to the situation being low risk, it is also ideal if it is a situation that occurs very frequently. This is because it takes effortful, deliberate practice to truly integrate a new process into the way you operate.

If you were in a class learning a new interview technique that only worked during interrogations of psychopathic mass murderers, that would be learning a skill that would be quite difficult to practice before you found yourself in the actual situation where you need to apply the technique. That would (I imagine) be a situation that occurs in a low frequency.

On the other hand, if you are able to apply the skills being taught in numerous settings, you would continuously build and expand your file folders for those particular observations, decreasing the amount of time required to make accurate recognitions. Because the four pillars of observable behavior are universally applicable, these are things that can be learned in any setting where there are actual people.

Low risk opportunities for practice is one of the reasons why in the classes that we teach, we show how these behaviors can be observed in coffee shops, malls, movie theaters, airports, train stations and restaurants in addition to settings that a professional could expect to observe them in their particular field. The goal is for them to realize that they can do this while watching television, watching their kid’s sporting events, on vacation, or while getting a cup of coffee, so that they can master the process in low risk, high frequency events.

In addition to “off-duty” scenarios, the behaviors and the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure also apply in numerous things a professional can expect on the job. If you are a police officer, you can use these same assessments while conducting traffic stops, while on a foot patrol, while conducting an interview, while doing surveillance detection, while sitting in your pre-shift briefing, and while attempting to ensure your own safety by recognizing threatening people planning an ambush.

In Summary

What is important to note is that I am not saying you should ignore tools that are narrowly applicable or ones that can’t be practiced in high-frequency situations. The goal is to understand where those types of assessments should be placed on the list of priority tools. If you are learning certain behaviors or information that only are present while conducting a threat assessment, that is fine, but know that those should be considered supporting tools to the things you are observing that you know will always be there. Mastering, and I mean truly mastering, broadly applicable tools can help officers adapt in changing situations because they are relying on training and observations that haven’t changed just because the situation has changed.

The CP Journal’s Tactical Analysis program was built because the decisions that our nation’s protectors are making have consequences that determine not only whether they will come home at the end of their shift or at the end of a deployment, but also have longer term impacts on the future of conflict and violence. It isn’t that people make intentionally bad decisions, but their decisions are only a result of the information that they had available to them at the time. By understanding how enhancing and informing situational awareness can lead to more accurate decisions, we can prevail despite the uncertainty that is inherent in everything a protector does. We can master those observations and master the process before we ever put a person who volunteered to serve in harms way.


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