Train the brain: Using decision making critiques to leverage lessons learned

“To learn as quickly as possible, we must be more deliberate, more disciplined, and more thorough in our approach in order to squeeze as much as possible from each experience, as with everything else about mental conditioning there is no magic here.” — Gary Klein

Last time, we examined how tactical decision games (TDGs) can be a simple, fun, and effective way to improve your decision making ability and tactical acumen.  We explored how the different forms of TDGs — solitary, group, and free play — work to build confidence in officers.  If you haven’t yet read part one in this two-part series, you really should click here.  That column, posted here on Police1 in late March, sets the foundation from which the following discussion will flow.  Okay, with that administrative stuff out of the way, let’s consider the decision making critique (DMC) — or after action review (AAR) — as another critical component to developing decision makers. 

The DMC/AAR is conducted after the decisions are made and actions taken. You can use the after action review process after a TDG and should regularly use them after an actual event officers handled on the street. A candid, frank and open discussion takes place amongst the group involved in the TDG or actual incident to bring out lessons learned. 

The goal of the DMC/AAR is to focus on key aspects of the incident, such as, were the decisions made in a timely manner? What was the rationale of the individual or group in making their decision?  Could we have done something better, safer, and more effective? Focus on every aspect from communications (both friendly and adversarial), tactical response and approach, perimeter set up and  containment, entry techniques or the ruse, surprise and/or deception you may have used to help you gain control. You should also examine arrest and search techniques and anything else you or other member of the shift or team, feel was a strength or weakness that lessons can be learned from.

Time Tested Methods
The powerful lessons that are learned from reviewing and critiquing a crisis situation you were personally involved in is a better than most formal training you can get. Why? Because you were there and experienced the circumstances first hand and then sat down and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the response.  From these lessons learned you develop a better plan for next time. A key component to conducting a DMC/AAR is a candid open dialog, anything less and you are only fooling yourself.

Police operational art places high demands on the intellect and skill set of police officers. To master our skills which include decision making ability we cannot be afraid to use tactical decision games and after action reviews as a catalyst to mastery.

I want to conclude with the fear factor and its importance.  It has been my experience many police officers and administrators are afraid to use these techniques. They believe it’s an admission of guilt to wrong doing on their part.  To those of you who fear or are leery of these methods of training and learning I say this; nothing we do is routine, nothing! Conflict and violence are riddled with complexity and unknowns and no two situations unfold identically, there is always something novel, be it, the people involved, or the location we find ourselves in. Even if it is the same location and the same people involved their intent, motives and emotions may be different from one day to the next. Risk and time are also factors to consider.

As Carl von Clausewitz said, “countless minor incidents, the kind you never really foresee, combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal.”  We can’t get it perfect despite our best efforts because there are just too many variables when human adversaries collide. What we can strive for, is a better and more desirable execution. Learning from falling short of the intended goal is what a learning organization is all about and law enforcement is or should be a learning organization. We owe it to ourselves and to those we protect to harness every lesson possible. 

The basic concepts behind good decision making and tactics are not all that complex, nor are they particularly hard for the average police officer to understand and comprehend. The difficult thing is in applying those concepts to a specific tactical problem.  It is here where the development and mastery of decision making and tactics come in. Understanding the essence of conflict is a struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, trying to impose itself on the other.

Conflict is a process of continuous mutual adaptation, of give and take, move and counter move. It is critical to keep in mind that the adversary is not an inanimate object to be acted upon but an independent and animate force with its own objectives and plans. While we try to impose our will on the adversary, he resists us and seeks to impose his own will on us. Appreciating this dynamic interplay between opposing human wills is essential to understanding the fundamental nature of conflict and hence the difficulty in getting it correct while adapting tactics. 

Human conflict is an extreme test of will. Friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, fear and danger, moral, mental and physical forces are its essential features. We never eliminate these features completely so we must learn to take “effective action” despite them.  

In law enforcement there is no substitute for experience, no substitute for the intuitive experience that comes from repeated practice. Decision Making exercises and critiques are the practice field for the tactical leader and officer. If we as individual officers and as a profession are not willing to collectively learn from our own on the job experience and history in an effort to continually educate ourselves to, improve safety and effectiveness, we will have failed to  protect ourselves and the communities we have sworn to protect.

I will close with this great message from MAJ John Schmitt; “Experience is a great teacher. Unfortunately, ours is a field in which experience can cost us dearly. As Field Marshall Sir William Slim wrote of taking over British forces in Burma in 1942 ‘Experience taught a good deal, but with the Japanese as instructors it was an expensive way of learning.’ We are professionally obligated to do whatever we can to gain whatever experience we can without paying the full price. That is precisely why we study past campaigns and precisely why we should play tactical decision games.” 

Now it’s time to master your decision making and tactical skills.

Stay Oriented!

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