Creativity under fire

An officer responds to a call reporting an active threat (active shooter) who is killing innocent people inside an office building. When the officer arrives, he is alone. Backup is at least ten minutes away and people are getting killed inside the building.

The officer makes the courageous decision to enter the building and attempt to eliminate the threat.

How would you do it? On pages 72 and following, the authors of Outcomes Based Learning describe an 8-step technique you could use. As you read through it, you’ll notice that it requires a fair amount of skill with your weapon and the ability to keep your focus in a time-critical crisis situation, not to mention a lot of courage. How would you teach officers to do it?

The way this topic might be taught is to make eight slides illustrating the actions at each step (just copy the illustrations from the book). You stand at the front and deliver a lecture. The students take notes and then take a written test, usually true-false or multiple choice to make grading easier. Those who achieve the required minimum score are certified.

The authors then conclude:

The approach outlined above is one of the most ineffective education methods in history.

They also note that it is undoubtedly the most widely used.

At best, you’ve taught people how to take a test, and since you’ll be rated on how many pass, you’ve probably taught the test. But what would happen in real life? Nowhere in all this have you trained officers to deal with situations that don’t follow the eight steps or prepared them to handle fear, smoke, screams, and bullets coming their way. In other words, how to actually clear a room.

Instead of teaching the process, the eight-step technique in this case, you might consider an alternative: Teach the outcome. What is it that you want to students to be able to do and under what circumstances, and prepare them to do that. As the authors put it:

True mastery of a skill or tactical technique is not just being able to execute the steps quickly and flawlessly in a neutral environment, but rather the ability to execute techniques under stress while reacting to unexpected variables and adjusting the techniques as needed in real-time to meet the demands of the specific situation.

The human brain actually has an internal mechanism that automatically prunes, eliminates knowledge or memory that the subconscious mind determines is not useful. … This is the reason why people often forget most if not all the knowledge they gain in high school and college.

This is confirmed by research — Prof. Ellen Langer of Harvard, for example, went into how we lose and recover memories in her book Counterclockwise. But my favorite explanation of this phenomenon was presented several years ago by Father Guido Sarducci: The Five Minute University. “In five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of the school.”

This book will give you ideas on how to construct training programs that produce real world outcomes in real world situations and that students will remember when they need them. There is almost no limit to what these outcomes could be. They offer a few suggestions:

Attribute 1: Willingness to Question Authority
Attribute 2: Aggressiveness and Boldness
Attribute 3: Judgment and Responsibility
Attribute 4: Moral Courage
Attribute 5: Adaptability
Attribute 7: Situational Awareness
Attribute 8: Confidence
Attribute 9: Critical Thinking Skills
Attribute 10: Problem-Solving Skills (“That being said, it is also important not to fall into the “there is no wrong answer” trap. When it comes to most problem-solving challenges as we have already said there is never a single right answer but there are indeed always wrong answers.”)
Attribute 11: Initiative

Somewhere in this list, there are attributes that affect your organization, whether you are a military unit, a sports team, a business team, or an educational institution. And it won’t be that difficult to get started. You won’t need to master volumes of arcane theory in order to derive a lot of benefit: “In fact, you can most likely continue training in all of the same areas and even conduct many of the same types of training events. OBL will simply add a valuable element to the equation that will change the way you approach training and think about training.” (7)

There are many interesting side roads in the book that you should explore. Take “knowledge,” for example. Knowledge applies to everybody and every type of organization, and I think you’ll find a trove of useful ideas in the chapter “Pursuit of Knowledge.” Some data, for example, do need to be committed to memory:

The ultimate goal is not just to memorize these weapons capabilities in list form but rather be able to look at a map and intuitively visualize the range circles sprouting from each weapon. Then when you look up from the map at the terrain in front of you those same range circles unfold in your mind. … intuitive decision making is almost always preferable to analytical decision making in battle because intuitive decision making is much faster and generally more effective.

The trick is which data to memorize, and then how to tie these facts into intuitive decision making so that they don’t just become courses in the Five Minute University, regurgitated for the test and then quickly forgotten.

All of these practices, including memorization and development of intuitive execution, must support the author’s insistence, noted above, that we master the ability to “execute techniques under stress while reacting to unexpected variables and adjusting the techniques as needed in real-time to meet the demands of the specific situation.” The American strategist John Boyd coined a term for this ability. He called it “building snowmobiles,” and maintained that the ability to do this is the essential skill that separates winners from losers.*

What the authors have produced is the first practical handbook for building snowmobiles, and one that is accessible to everybody. I think Boyd would be very, very excited about this book.

A couple of notes. First on the treatment of OODA loops. The authors claim that “Taking action will by definition change the situation, requiring the pilot to repeat the process all over again, observing, orienting, deciding and acting. This cycle repeats in a continuing ‘loop,’ thus the term OODA Loop is another descriptor for Boyd’s decision cycle.”

As I have argued at length in my paper “Boyd’s OODA loop,” (available for free download from our Articles page) this model doesn’t really work very well. Boyd himself came to realize this when he drew his OODA “loop” sketch (reproduced in my paper) in The Essence of Winning and Losing. The authors of this book are well aware of this, however, and explain their use of the circular model thusly:

Whether or not the last few pages accurately captured Boyd’s thinking, they certainty capture how the average military leader interpreted Boyd’s thinking. … Most importantly, the simplified narrative is more accessible and in some cases easier for most people to apply to real-world problems.

As I also note in my paper, the circular model is a subset of Boyd’s OODA “loop” sketch and does accurately represent his model of learning, that is how to build and employ snowmobiles. Creativity and leadership under fire. And since learning is what this book is all about, I can endorse their use of the circular representation, even if it is not a good model of decisions and actions in a rapidly changing situation.

Also, a note on authorship. No author is listed, but the principle author is the leading expert on outcomes based learning, Don Vandergriff, author of many works on improving leadership in critical command situations, including Raising the Bar, The Path to Victory, and Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture.

Don told me that the Special Tactics Staff provided support and contributions. Incidentally, the general background of the Special Tactics team comes out of Tier-1 Special Missions Units and Special Forces.

I strongly recommend this book. You’ll find all sorts of interesting topics, all in a highly readable style that you will find difficult to put down. No matter what your occupation, by the end of this book, you will be building better snowmobiles faster.

*The idea is that a snowmobile takes bits and pieces from what’s readily available — in this case, what we already know — and combines them in a new way to solve a problem. Boyd describes the process and importance of building snowmobiles in his presentation Strategic Game of ? and ?, available from our Articles page.

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