Professional Reading and Development: It Doesn’t Give All the Answers, But It Lights What Is Often a Uncertain Path Ahead

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." ~Marcus Aurelius

At this blog we have talked a lot of talk about “adaptive, learning organizations,” and I do so, because I firmly believe this is an important topic for policing. Important to how we lead, develop our people and serve our communities. I started this Blog back in 2006 and now 12 years later have over 1,200 posts. Each post I have written or shared from others has challenged my thinking and caused me to reflect deeply. The discourses over the years have been both heated and professional and I have learned a great deal from each and everyone of them. Reflection thinking about how and why we do what we do is important. Important because it leads to deeper learning and understanding of policing problems. Reflection opens minds to consider what works, what does not. What traditional aspects of how we police still have value and what do we do to add value with new traditions, new ways to train and develop and lead our people to handle the complexities of policing.

All too often and especially in the beginning stages, these policing problems (crime, conflict, violence, and quality of life issues, etc.) are ill structured with no definitive way they form or evolve. They are full of uncertainty, and disorder, and often despite the information gathered in these early stages officers still do not know what is actually happening. What is the problem they face? This is why it so important we develop police officers who can frame problems and solve them, instead of following structured plans, SOPs, checklists or some tactics or methods that work great in pristine climate and conditions of a training class and fail in the real world due to either an unwillingness or inability to adapt or a culture that has stifled initiative. I call it the follow the follower culture. My friend and fellow cop and trainer of cops Lou Hayes, who inspired me to write this piece, calls it Drinking the Kool-aide. Fix mindset is its official title, believing that your qualities and skills are carved in stone. Whatever we call can be dangerous and lead to policing very ineffectively!

This inability to adapt to unknown or changing conditions, often comes from our deep rooted beliefs (fixed mindset) about how we trained and by whom. Our respect for those who taught us is so powerful, what we learned becomes the only way! We get locked into what we were told to do and it has such a tight lock on our minds that we can not see other alternatives, other options.

To defeat this inability to let go of the status quo, takes what Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success calls a growth mindset. "A growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience." Isn't this the point of training and development? Isn't this the reason we conduct after action reviews and highlight lessons learned? Isn't this the reason we write and review policy and procedure, SOPs, checklists and the like, all in an effort to grow our abilities that allow us to effectively serve our communities? Why is it then, with few exception we are so fixed on the status quo and doing things the way we have always done them, if growth, getting better is our loudly stated common outcome we all say, we seek?

Why, is a growth mindset and professional development so important?

"As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units. How can we coach anything if we don’t know a lot more than just the tactics, techniques, and procedures? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher headquarters can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstances—in the Information Age, things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground that our regimented thinkers ceded far too quickly in our recent fights.)

And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flatfooted if you don’t know what the warning signs are—that your unit’s preparations are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated? Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed the luxury of ignorance of their profession." `United States Defense Secretary, General James Mattis

In a great piece I read recently by my good friend and cop who spends a great deal of time developing his own programs of instruction that teach, police in how to think, probe, frame and solve complex police problems. In his piece, Complexity Cocktails & How We Drink The Kool-Aid Lou asks a critical question:

Who is drinking whose Kool-Aid? and Who is pissing in whose?

We can all imagine someone we know or follow who speaks in the same exact language as someone deemed a leader in a specific industry or community. These followers "like" or "share" or "retweet" darn near everything the leader posts. Everything the follower does is in direct harmony with the leader. It's a regurgitation without the addition of an original thought...and certainly not any provocation or challenge!

In these risky and fast-changing times, adaptation, our ability to change to an altered situation, is arguably outcome #1 and my interpretation of what Luo Hayes is getting at is we must challenge prevailing mindsets. Challenge these mindsets not just for the sake of change but instead for the betterment of policing and the communities we protect.

Micah Zenko, in his book Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy says "an astonishing number of senior leaders are systemically incapable of identifying their organization’s most glaring and dangerous shortcomings. This is not a function of stupidity, but rather stems from two routine pressures that constrain everybody’s thinking and behavior. The first is comprised of cognitive biases, such as mirror imaging, anchoring, and confirmation bias. These unconscious motivations on decision-making under uncertain conditions make it inherently difficult to evaluate one’s own judgments and actions."

...and the bones of those, old and young, who failed to adapt litter the landscape (stole this quote from a Walking Dead episode and I feel its a fitting metaphor for policing).

The inability to recognize our shortcomings and adapt the necessary changes, leads to mediocrity and looking unprofessional at a minimum, and in the worst case it can get a cop or citizen hurt or killed. All too often these biases (to include training and development biases) are so powerful that instead of discussing tactical principals and their merit, we end up arguing about tactical skill set or some other policing issue, and which is THE BEST WAY TO DO IT! Nobody wins and nothing changes. I posted a great piece a while back by Special Tactics that speaks to this problem:

"When arguing about tactics, winning (in the traditional sense) is generally impossible. The reason for this is that there is often not a single clear answer to any tactical question. When comparing two techniques, it is difficult to prove that one technique is entirely right and another is entirely wrong. Instead, each technique usually has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. However, in many cases, people on each side of the argument focus only on the advantages of their own technique and the disadvantages of the opposing technique, remaining completely closed-minded to alternative viewpoints which makes learning impossible. In our opinion, the only way to “lose” a tactical argument is to walk away without learning anything."

Major Paul Tremblay wrote a great paper “Shaping and Adapting: Unlocking the Power of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop.” explains what I believe is an important concept for police to understand called incestuous amplification. The urban dictionary defines incestuous amplification as "the (extreme) reinforcement (read: over-hyping) of ideas and/or beliefs that occurs when like-minded people communicate with each other." Major Tremblay explains how this can impact our decision-making.

Incestuous amplification occurs when one’s preconceptions misshape the observations that one is sensing. These misshapen observations then blur the true connection between the individual and the environment because the brain begins to synthesize cues and preconceived responses. Incestuous Amplification is also a condition in conflict and crisis where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation.

Simply put incestuous amplification is when the police responding are locked on to a school solution, policy, procedure, checklist and try implementing that solution even when it is clear, the situation calls for some other option. We fail to make effective change to the altered situation. We do not adapt! Instead we habitually respond, not considering the situations novelties, or even distinguishing the situation as an adaptive challenge our technical problem. Ultimately there is no decisions. We are just doing what we were told to do! This has huge implications on how we train and prepare officers for and how they respond to crisis situations.

Col. John Boyd often said "You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.” Boyd, also said "Decisions without actions are pointless. Actions without decisions are reckless." How does incestuous amplification (blind loyalty, group think, its the way we have always done it, status quo, follow the follower, drinking the Kool-aide) affect policing? Again Lou Hayes offers some wisdom:

So let's get to the dirt. Who are some of the so-called idols that I frequently see being worshipped? Simon Sinek. Nassim Taleb. Stanley McChrystal. John Boyd (d.). Malcolm Gladwell. Tom Peters. Dave Snowden. Sir Ken Robinson. This is by no means a complete list, but rather just some of those in the leadership, learning, and complexity communities from which I spend time studying, reading, and learning. They each have groupies, but also a passionate group of haters.

I also list those particular folks because I respect and admire their works, content, and ideas. They are those who have certain models, depictions, infographics, frameworks, systems, rules, concepts, and values. I don't dare even suggest these leaders even remotely desire(d) the blind, robotic cult-like following they have on their coattails and social media feeds.

We could also add police, military trainers, the sciences and philosophy, to this list Lou Hayes developed and I offer only a few here that have influenced my thinking over the years (Charles "Sid" Heal, David Grossman, Charles Remsberg, Jim Glennon, Dan Marcou, Brian Willis, Lou Hayes, Thom Dworak, Kevin Davis, Bruce Siddle, Ken Murray, Jason Brennan, Chris Baker, Don Vandergriff, H. John Poole, Jorg Muth, Martin van Creveld, Chet Richards, William Lind, Paul Van Riper, Pete Turner, Robert Bunker, John Sullivan, B.H. Liddell Hart, Wes Doss, Gavin De Becker, Patrick Van Horne, Jason Riley, Mark Safranski, Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Marcus Aurelius, T.E. Lawrence, James Gleick, Gary Klein, Daniel Kahneman, Robert Bjork, Terry Barnhart, Herman Goldstein, etc. etc. etc.)

All of these folks I have high levels of respect for and have learned from over the years. What I love about them most is, they would be the first to say read and expand on my ideas, evolve, combine, mix and match, the tactics I recommend to fit different situations police may find themselves in. I have met many of these folks in person and all of them have been humble, open-minded and willing to help develop others. They are also very open too having their ideas challenged. And, they look to different disciplines, to help the evolve their own ideas, throughout their careers. They all, illustrate the importance of learning, unlearning and relearning in an effort to continually improve themselves and others.

"The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience)—that is the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences—generally a better way to do business—especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men. Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flatfooted by any situation, and I’ve never been at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead." ~United States Defense Secretary, General James Mattis

To challenge prevailing mindsets and keep doctrine from becoming dogma we must also look to folks who may see policing, differently than we do. We must, let our minds be influenced (positively or negatively) by the writings and ideas of folks like; Barry Friedman, Paul Butler, Jordan T. Camp, Michelle Alexander, Nancy Isenberg, J. D. Vance, Joe Domanick, Radley Balko , Norm Stamper, Charles Campisi, Burl Barer, Benjamin Watson, Malcolm K. Sparrow, Corey Pegues to name a few folks who are cops, former cops, non-cops and academics who have done a ton of research on policing and are certainly influencing the narrative and what policing is evolving towards, I would argue in both positive and negative ways. Its important to shape our minds from these folks who either don't agree with how policing does business and bring up important ideas for consideration or have outright taken advantage of their positions or in some of whom I have listed were outright corrupt. Yes some of them cops. Why consider their ideas? Because what they have to say is shaping the national narrative and we either have to challenge it when its detrimental to the profession and our communities or adapt if the ideas can have a positive impact on policing a free society.

Adaptability comes from developing our minds and considering all the possibilities as to how and why we police and how the people we police view that how and why. I wildly over-simplify, but I insist that there is a one-variable answer to the adaptation/learning issue—moreover, treatment of that variable is “the” answer to this puzzle and it has been with us, unchanged, for eons. It has been the determining success-fail, life-death factor for companies, armies and police departments, people alike. In short: Adaptation is more or less a 100% function of all personnel and how it is recruited and developed and encouraged and appreciated—or not. In the end performance (EXECUTION) comes down to human nature be you a person, sports team, business, military, or a police department. And we influence human nature through professional development and continued learning, unlearning and relearning.

“We love the terms ‘adaptive leaders’ and ‘innovation’ as long as they do not rock anybody’s boat.” ~Franklin C. Spinney

Stay Oriented!