In Mastering Tactics Shouldn’t We Be Blending Policy and Procedures with People and Ideas?

“In complex settings in which we have to take the context into account, we can’t codify all the work in a set of procedures. No matter how comprehensive the procedures, people probably will run into something unexpected and will have to use their judgment.” ~Gary Klein

Much of this post comes from an outstanding book, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, written by Gary Klein. Klein is a leading researcher on recognized primed decision making and experiential learning that has culminated in two other books, “Sources of Power” and “Intuition at Work,” as well, as, countless research papers. The information in this topic of decision making and how to create and nurture it, is beneficial to every cop in their quest to mastering tactics and tactical decision making and are a must read for every cop wanting to be more effective and safe on the street. My purpose is to get cops thinking about this Critical question: In mastering tactics shouldn’t we be blending policy and procedure with people and ideas?

It should be understandable that teaching people, procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully doesn’t always apply. Procedures are most useful in well-ordered situations when they can substitute for skill, not augment it. In complex situations, in the shadows of the unknown, uncertain and unpredictable and complex world of law enforcement conflict, procedures are less likely to substitute for expertise and may even stifle its development.

Here is a different way of putting it as Klein explains: In complex situations, people will need judgment skills to follow procedures effectively and to go beyond them when necessary.

For stable and well-structured tasks i.e. evidence collection and handling, follow-up investigations, booking procedures and report writing, we should be able to construct comprehensive procedure guides. Even for complex tasks we might try to identify the procedures because that is one road to progress. But we also have to discover the kinds of expertise that comes into play for difficult jobs such as, robbery response, active shooter and armed gunman situations, hostage and barricade situations, domestic disputes, drug and alcohol related calls and pretty much any other call that deals with emotionally charged people in conflict.

Klein states, “to be successful we need both analysis (policy and procedure) and intuition (people and ideas).” Either one alone can get us into trouble. Experts certainly aren’t perfect, but analysis can fail. Intuition isn’t magic either. Klein defines intuition as, “ways we use our experience without consciously thinking things out”. Intuition includes tacit knowledge that we can’t describe. It includes our ability to recognize patterns stored in memory. We have been building these patterns up all our lives from birth to present, and we can rapidly match a situation to a pattern or notice that something is off, that some sort of anomaly is warning us to be careful. Here is where we must trust our gut and go beyond the policy, adapt and innovate to be successful. There is a science and art to policy and procedures. The science is where the best practices, policy and procedures come from and are developed around. The art is where people, ideas, insight, innovation and initiative come as we interact and attempt to resolve law enforcement problems.

Like all tools, procedures have strengths and weaknesses. Although I have been describing their limitation, we certainly shouldn’t discard them. Here is what Gary Klein says they buy us:

• They are training tools. They help novices get started in learning a task.
• They are memory aids. In many jobs they help cops overcome memory slips.
• They can safeguard against interruptions.
• They reduce workload and make it easier to attend to critical aspects of the task.
• They are a way to compile experience and historical information. Procedures are useful when there is a lot of turnover and few workers ever develop much skill.
• They help less experienced cops do a reasonably acceptable job. They can walk a skilled marksman through the steps of handling a pistol or rifle malfunction. They can help a crime annalist troubleshoot a tricky crime trend.
• They can help teams coordinate by imposing consistency. If the people on the team know the same procedures, they can predict one another’s next moves.
• The last advantage is particularly important for ad hoc teams that don’t have a chance to practice and train together regularly.

The downside to procedures is that they usually aren’t sensitive to context. In complex situations we may not know when to start and end each step. The people making procedures usually try to substitute precision and detail for tacit knowledge. People sometimes make up procedural guides to capture what they think experts are doing. That’s a noble intent, but procedural guides really can’t explain the tacit knowledge that people acquire over decades of experience. We must be careful in the policy and procedure development process.

Procedures help when you need people to reliably follow the same steps. However, that’s different from needing reliable outcomes. For example, on the range or on the street a shooter must place the round down range to the center of available mass, shot after shot, yet we don’t care if the arc of the gun, the foot placement, movement, the bend in the shooters knees, is the same each time. And it isn’t the same. Even the experienced shooter alters the arc of the gun, his stance, position, his posture in order to get an accurate shot.

Getting procedures right is not just a matter of getting them to be accurate or efficient or updated or covering all the needed contexts, which may well be both impossible and prohibitively expensive in time and money. It is also a matter of getting the organization to have the right attitude toward procedures.

To put procedures into prospective, Gary Klein gives this example; “consider the difference between directions and maps. When we have to travel to an unfamiliar destination, we sometimes get directions, a sequence of actions (e.g., go straight for two blocks, then turn left). Other times we get a map showing where we are, where we want to be, and the terrain in between. The directions are easier to follow, but if anything goes wrong (say, a street is blocked off) we are stuck. A map demands more of us but makes it easier for us to adapt and can be used for other routes in the same area. We have the guide but we still must use our judgment.” Think about this in terms of the types of calls we in law enforcement respond to. Is everything always the same on that domestic or a car stop or are their mismatches that create confusion and a need to bypass certain policies and procedures and we must resort to real time innovative tactical problem solving to resolve the situation more effectively?

Klein states; “for many types of complex work we need both procedures and the judgment to interpret and work around the procedures. In a 2007 study (Hockey, G.; Sauer, J.; Wastell, D. "Adaptability of Training in Simulated Process Control: Comparison of Knowledge- and Rule-based Guidance under Task Changes and Environmental Stress, Human Factors, Vol.49) found, “people trained to understand the way a system worked were more flexible, and did a better job of spotting and fixing unfamiliar and complex problems, than people trained to follow rules and procedures. However, they also take longer to do the work, and they were more affected by a stressor, noise, than people who had been trained to follow procedures.” This clearly states to me, there is a need for “blending policies and procedures with people and ideas.” How? Developing effective policies and procedures and implementing them with effective training. Ongoing training that builds the foundation and the ability to adapt when necessary!

Teaching procedures

When we want to teach some procedures, the typical way is to present the standard procedures and make everyone memorize and practice them. Not good enough!

Here is another way to teach procedures. Setup scenarios for various kinds of challenges and let cops go through the scenarios. If the procedures make sense, then cops should get to see what happens when they depart from the optimal procedures. When procedures are taught in a scenario format, people can appreciate why the procedures were put into place and can also gain a sense of the limitations of the procedures. This scenario format works better than having people memorize the details of each step. The scenarios provide a good counterpoint for learning the steps of complicated tasks. Moreover, the scenarios can help people acquire some of the tacit knowledge they need in order to apply procedures effectively.

Why Does Blending Policy and Procedures with People and Ideas Matter?

It matters because when we emphasize procedures over skills we set a standard of mediocre performance. The standard procedures become a basis for evaluating job performance, making people even less likely to adapt or improvise and more careful to comply with the rules.. In unpredictable settings (law enforcement setting), the standard procedures can impede progress because cops may have to explore the situation and experiment and not be told what to do every step of the way.

It matters because too often we issue procedures in order to change behavior even though there may be simpler and more effective ways to do that.

We cannot take all the guesswork out of law enforcement decisions by providing procedures to follow and clear criteria for how to move on to each step. Teaching people procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully. This statement reflects our desire to break complex tasks into step by step procedures. Dr. Gary Klein ran into this attitude in initial research on recognized primed decision making, working with firefighters. I asked them how they made their decisions and they explained that they rarely if ever, had to decide anything. “We just follow the standard procedures,” they explained. But when asked to see the procedures they told me they weren’t written down. Firefighters just knew what to do. Even when faced with a complex situation, the commanders could see it as familiar and know how to react. … The commander’s secret was that their experience let them see a situation, even a non-routine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away. Their experience let them identify a reasonable reaction as the first one they considered, so they did not bother thinking of others. They were not being perverse. They were being skillful. We now call this strategy recognition-primed decision making.”

Klein says, “the Recognition-Primed Decision Making Model fuses two processes: the way decision makers’ size up the situation to recognize which course of action makes sense, and the way they evaluate the course of action by imagining it. It is important to keep in mind that decisions evolve with circumstances. While some decisions are made simply, with more time to decide, other decisions require quick if-then thinking in order to achieve results."

The focus here is how to prepare members of the law enforcement profession to make those rapid decisions that need to be made under pressure. Blending people and ideas with policy and procedures is the way to that outcome. This is a challenging task, which will take hard work and a coactive effort by all members of policing. After careful consideration, and reassessing and reshaping my own ideas on the value of policy and procedures, is a task I believe worth undertaking, when balance out by allowing people (cops) and their ideas, their skills to evolve when dealing with real time rapidly changing circumstances if we are to move our profession forward toward full spectrum and effective responses.

Stay Oriented,

LT Fred Leland