Adaptability is Key in Handling Crisis Situations…Be In Command and Out Of Control

“…the first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control,” Van Riper says echoing the words of management guru Kevin Kelly. “By that, I mean that the overall guidance and the intent were provided by me and the senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn’t depend on intricate orders coming from the top. They were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward….” Paul Van Riper, US Marine commander.

Only open systems can adapt adequately to change, so an organism needs to maintain interaction with its environment if it is to survive, so Boyd had already argued writes, Frans P.B. Osinga, in his book “Science Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd”

Organizations such as police departments must take responsibility in how they lead and train their officers if they are to thrive in the chaos and uncertainty of crisis and conflict. No longer is the policy and procedural driven world that has engulfed policing over the last 20 years or so good enough at handling the adaptive challenges we face in crisis and conflict. Especially in the initial stages “The Golden Hour” when uncertainty and chaos are creating disorder at its greatest level. Here instead we need walking, talking and thinking responders who possess the explorer and experimental mindset as they interact with the environment.

The concept definition from the California POST Steering Committee working group “Edge of Chaos” is to:

“Improve the Incident Commander’s ability to function within the “golden hour” of critical incidents. This “golden hour” is defined as the chaotic stage of an incident in which the crisis is still fluid, meaningful information is difficult to obtain and situational awareness seemingly impossible to establish. In this initial period, it is difficult to determine how to set multiple people, groups and agencies on a path towards resolution.”

Ultimately this group’s focus is about leadership and developing cops in the ability to make good decisions in extreme conditions while apply intuitive sensemaking strategies aimed at working through chaos and toward the implementation of productive Operational Incident Command. This is important definition in my view because the theories of Col John Boyd and the type of command structure and command climate he advocates will help police to thrive in complex and chaotic situation. The only tool we have right now to solve that is NIMS and ICS.

ICS/NIMS are still to top down oriented and rigid despite the effort and mantra that it is grown from the ground up and meant to be flexible. All too often responders and incident commanders are overly concerned with the process of ICS and setting up structures (staging areas, rally points, etc.), effecting the fluidity of the initial course of action. Each episode of crisis is the temporary result of a unique combination of circumstances, presenting a unique set of problems and requiring original solution. Nevertheless no episode can be viewed in isolation. Rather, each episode merges with those that precede and follow it, shaped by the former and shaping conditions of the latter, creating a continuous, fluctuating flow of activity chock-full with fleeting opportunities and unforeseen events. Since crisis and conflict are fluid phenomenon, its conduct requires flexibility of thought. Success depends in large part on the ability to adapt, to proactively shape changing events to our advantage as well as to react quickly to constantly changing conditions.

Before you get to the point where you can apply the ICS structure, there is “something” that a first responder can do to help resolve the crisis or at minimum gather real time information to what the actual ongoing situation is reducing the uncertainty and disorder that attracts the right course of action. That “something” is creating and nurturing adaptability throughout the organization. Not everyone has the skill set to do that but it can be developed and influenced with the right training and education and adaptive leadership. What can we distill from our current culture that we can focus our efforts on to make people successful at handling unconventional crisis; what skills should we nurture? The theory to help us in this arena is already out there. All we need to do is adapt it to our culture which takes hard work and time. We did not form the top down leadership structures overnight nor can we overnight change to a bottoms-up culture. Engaging others and hard work developing new values and principles, evolved over time in an effort to continuously improve step by step is what it will take to implement.

The Theory Organic Design for Command and Control

Boyd proposed a set of principles which he felt a command and control thinking must be designed in his briefing Organic Design for Command and Control.” He stresses we:

  • Need insight and vision to unveil adversary plans and action as well as foresee own goals and appropriate plans and actions.
  • Need focus and direction to achieve some goal or aim.
  • Need adaptability, to cope with uncertain and ever changing circumstances.
  • Need security, to remain unpredictable.

Osinga writes, “The rationale from these set of criteria is also offered and it is closely related to the two variants of the set of four elements Boyd had introduced in Patterns of Conflict:

  • Variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (Patterns of Conflict, p. 12);
  • Insight/imagination/adaptability/harmony (Patterns of Conflict, p. 185).

As Boyd explains

“Without insight and vision there can be no orientation to deal with both present and future. Without focus and direction, implied or explicit, there can be neither harmony of effort nor initiative for vigorous effort. Adaptability implies variety and rapidity. Without variety and rapidity one can neither be unpredictable nor cope with changing and unforeseen circumstances. Without security on becomes predictable, hence one loses the benefits of the above.”

Osinga explains it is from this basis; Boyd sets out to develop a normative view on a design for command and control. As in Patterns of Conflict, he starts with some samples from historical environment, offering nine citations from nine practitioners, including from himself:

  1. Sun Tzu (around 400 BC)”Probe enemy strength to unmask his strengths, weaknesses, patterns of movement and intentions. Shape enemy’s perception of world to manipulate/undermine his plans and actions. Employ Cheng/Chi maneuvers to quickly and unexpectedly hurl strength against weakness.”
  2. Bourcet (1764-71) “A plan ought to have several branches … One should … mislead the enemy and make him imagine that the main effort is coming at some other part. And … one must be ready to profit by a second or third branch of the plan without giving one’s enemy time to consider it.”
  3. Napoleon (early 1800s) Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less chary of the latter than the former. Space we can recover, time never. I may lose a battle, but I shall never lose a minute. The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.”
  4. Clausewitz (1832) “Friction (which includes the interaction of many factors, such as uncertainty, psychological/moral forces and effects, etc.) impedes activity. Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper. In this sense, friction represents the climate or atmosphere of war. “
  5. Jomini (1836) “By free and rapid movements carry bulk of the forces (successively) against fractions of the enemy.”
  6. Blumentritt (1947) “The entire operational and tactical leadership method hinged upon … rapid concise assessment of situations … and quick decisions and quick execution, on the principle: each minute ahead of the enemy is an advantage.”
  7. N.B. Forrest (1860s) “ Git thar the fustest with the mostest.”
  8. Balck (1980) “Emphasis upon creation of implicit connections or bonds based upon trust, not mistrust that permit wide freedom for subordinates to exercise imagination and initiative, yet harmonize within intent of superior commanders. Benefit: internal simplicity that permits rapid adaptability.
  9. Boyd “Operate inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops to enmesh adversary in a world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos … and/or fold adversary back inside himself so that he cannot cope with events/efforts as they unfold.”

Osinga lays out the key points Boyd derives from these quotations are that:

  1. The atmosphere of war is friction;
  2. Friction is generated and magnified by menace, ambiguity, deception, rapidity, uncertainty, mistrust, etc.;
  3. Friction is diminished by implicit understanding, trust, cooperation, simplicity, focus, etc.;
  4. In this sense, variety and rapidity tend to magnify friction, while harmony and initiative tend to diminish friction.

In other words, without harmony and initiative, variety and rapidity lead to confusion and disorder. Harmony and initiative without variety and rapidity lead to rigid uniformity and predictability and ultimately to non-adaptability. The problem for any command concept then becomes to find an answer to the question: How to generate harmony/initiative so that one can exploit variety/rapidity? Boyd comments on that question by suggesting that we must uncover those interactions that foster harmony and initiative yet do not destroy variety and rapidity.

When you are dealing with adaptive challenges, which are what conflict and crisis are made up of, there is no obvious answer to the question “What is going on here?” Trying to define the problem at hand is a contentious act in itself. Managing this uncertainty requires courage, tenacity, and an experimental mind-set: you try things out, see what happens, and make changes accordingly. When you adopt an experimental/explorer mind-set, you actively commit to an intervention you have designed while also not letting yourself become wedded to it. That way, if it misses the mark, you do not feel compelled to defend it, and instead you are adaptable. This mind-set also opens you to other, unanticipated possibilities or other tactical options.

Adaptive leadership and bottoms-up decision making by highly trained and developed professionals is a command structure that will allow you to foster harmony and initiative while maintaining variety and rapidity to exploit opportunities to get things done !

Stay Oriented!