The Tactical Decision Maker: The Devil's Definitely in the Details

“The pursuit of data, in almost any field has come to resemble a form of substance abuse.” ~Gary Klein, author “Street Lights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making”

The ability to make quick decisions under pressure is the attribute most often sought in law enforcement, security and military personnel, especially for the front line operative. Such decisions are expected in the heat of rapidly changing and complex circumstances, often under life threatening conditions with limited information.

There is a recent trend in the law enforcement and security community, evidenced by laptops in patrol cars and the proliferation of smart phones that provide internet and social networking website access (such as Twitter and Facebook) used by agencies to gather more relevant data to improve on the ground decision making. But is this a good way to go? Are we approaching a point in which there is simply too much data supplied to the front line operative to permit critical decision making? Are we approaching the clichéd ‘paralysis of analysis’?

While law enforcement management is busy gathering and disseminating an ever greater stream of information, does it hamper or enable the operative? Are we doing it because it’s available, or because it’s wise to do so? Should we be limiting the supply of data to only targeted information, or should we be gathering as much as possible? Let's examine this more closely.

Jacob Bronowski stated: “Action depends upon understanding” and understanding comes from harnessing our senses and searching for an answer as to what’s going on. We analyze a situation searching for its meaning that will allow us to make decisions. Is adding more details the same as expanding understanding of the situation at hand?

In our quest to save lives and stop violence we often set out on a mission to gather all of the information we possibly can. This seems like the right thing to do and it is often done when there is plenty of time to decide and risk is low, such as developing a school emergency response plan. The information gathered for the plan can be explicit and it can be analyzed, honed and tweaked in a way that makes it comprehensive.

But what happens when a live emergency takes place, such as an active shooter for example. Is the search for details as important in this instance, or can the search for these details become problematic and delay response time? When an active shooter goes into action, the situation we planned for becomes instantly complex and time pressures. Uncertainty in the minds of those responding sets in almost immediately. Time is now scarce and risk is very high, there are lives at stake and we must take action. We ask ourselves: What’s going on? How many shooters are there? How do I handle it? How should I approach? Which way should I enter? If I am the first responder, should I wait for back-up or enter and engage with the shooter? Is there time to wait or should I go? He was initially in the cafeteria and now there are reports of someone on the roof and in the west wing of the school; where should I go first? There are numerous kids running panicked; could one of them be the shooter? Can this really be happening here, or was the caller mistaken?

It is happening here…now what? If we tried to answer the questions above “explicitly” we would have no time to respond and stop the ongoing deadly action as we search for answers to each of these questions. There will be more questions once you actually engage with the subject. Will he stop his action? Will he shoot? Should I shoot and eliminate the threat? There are innocent kids in the background; what if I shoot and miss?

A flood of questions will come to mind in the heat of a violent encounter. My point is, the questions will be there but the answers will come in the form judgment -- implicit and intuitive decisions based on your experience and training. Attention to detail is not the sole answer in the non-linear world of violence. Instead it’s paying attention to detail that has meaning in the heat of the moment.

In his book, “Street Lights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making,” Gary Klein offers some insight into information and uncertainty:

“There are different types of uncertainty. Sometimes we are uncertain because we don’t have the information we need. Sometimes we have the information but we don’t know if we can trust it. Sometimes we trust it but it conflicts with other information we also believe. And sometimes we believe it but we can’t figure out what it means.” [1]

Too much information can cause our brains to shut down and fail to respond accordingly. Trying to answer, every possible question, until we find explicit understanding, and the optimum solution, in the complex world of violence, is not strategically or tactically sound, operational art. I know this goes against the grain of how we normally think, but we must remember violent encounters despite their constant exploitation in the media are not normal events. Operational art required here is in our ability to gather information and mange it correctly on the fly and extract understanding that leads to effective action.

To be effective we must understand the differences in information, the time verses risk factor and how they relate to decisions we make. Like the shooting debate, is precision sighted shooting the best method or is it close quarter battle point shooting? The answer lies in our knowledge and ability to apply both based on the circumstances. When it comes to decision making, the devil is in the details sometimes…and sometimes not!

Stay oriented!