OODA Loops: The Explorer Mentality…And Recognizing Patterns of Behavior | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

COL John Boyd explained; a person in a conflict must observe the environment, to include himself, his adversary, the moral, mental and physical situation, potential allies and opponents. He must orient to what it all means, “what’s going on” which is part of the ongoing process throughout the situation. Orientation involves the information observed, ones genetic heritage, social environment and prior experiences (birth-present) that forms a picture of the situation. The results one forms during the orientation phase must be decided upon and an attempt need be made to carry out the decision, and finally, he must act.

Anticipation, the double edged sword:

Anticipation can be the key to winning, but if anticipation is based on yesterday’s situation it can be deadly! Never anticipate the outcome unless it’s based on the current situation. It is great to anticipate trouble but anticipation of the outcome of any encounter should be based on clear sight and cool minded orientation as to what’s going on!  All situations we respond to are unknown risks so we must be constantly vigilant. Your Boyd Cycle must be fluid! It is important to understand both the science and art of tactics and how to apply what we know to the current circumstances.  Fighting today’s battle with yesterdays tactics could be deadly!

The Butcher Knife: a Lesson On Anticipation

You are an officer assigned to handle an emotionally disturbed person threatening suicide according to a person who called dispatch. The location and assailant are known to you and with whom you frequently interact with for the same type of problem. You arrive on scene, park out font, get out of your patrol car and begin to talk with the woman allegedly in emotional distress. She tells you she is fine and that she did not need police services. After your assessment you felt she was OK and not a threat to herself or someone else, so you cleared the scene. No sooner than you leave, the previous caller, a friend of the woman in distress, called the station and stated the victim was indeed in emotional distress and had lied to the cop and that she was going to kill herself. Again you think…”this type of behavior is a normal pattern for this location.”

You go back to the location and in route you call off back-up stating it would just be another transport to the hospital! You go to the door which is open and begin to speak with the woman who is now very angry and animated and shouts she does not want to go to the hospital. You continue the conversation in an attempt to persuade her to go. You step inside the crammed apartment kitchen (approximately 8ft by 10 feet).  In the kitchen, you position yourself with a refrigerator to your left, a kitchen table to the right (with just enough walking space between the two), and a kitchen counter behind you making it difficult for you to move freely. As you talk with the distraught and angry woman, she reaches behind her back, lifts her shirt, and quickly draws a large knife, removes it from its sheath and thrusts it towards your chest. You are shocked and surprised at what’s happening but you quickly grab the knife hand and swept the woman off her feet and to the ground. She continues to struggle and you used several strikes to get her to stop and regain control.

Given this situation, what would you have done? Would you have waited for backup prior to entering the apartment verses calling it off? Would you have taken a different tactical approach and response? Would you have considered less lethal options, did you have a choice? Would you have used deadly force? If so, are you confident with the use of your firearm? Did your positioning and close proximity to the subject negate even considering your firearm? What did you miss here? What part of situational awareness allowed you to think that this situation was going to end the same as it always does, with an uneventful transport to the hospital and the woman evaluated, after all it was routine and within the normal patterns of behavior you experienced every time before so why only minute or two later was her response different? This time why did she decide to try and kill you? More importantly, why did you believe it was going to be business as usual? And even a more critical question, do you understand the WHY behind the tactics you choose to use or are you just trying to force the square tactical technique you learned into the round, rectangle, triangle, octagon, chaotic shaped, tactical situation? Do realize tactics has as much to do about thinking as it do about the physical application of the technique? As A.M. Gray, the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps says; “In tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but why you go left or right.”

In the end the officer in this real life scenario fulfilled the number one rule in law enforcement. “He went home at the end of his shift!” All too often this is where the learning ends, a cop comes out alive and we rightfully celebrate the victory. But what about the lessons in recognizing patterns of behavior and their opposites or anomalies? How would the explorer mentality and situation awareness have changed this situation and reduced officer created jeopardy? What might the answers to these questions mean to our responding to and dealing with the host of crises we must deal with in the future? Would you continue to use the same tactics and followed the same procedures? What would you do differently if you decided to continually explore and learn throughout the tactical situation verses anticipating the same old outcome?

Direct experience with deadly force situations is extremely limited even in the most active law enforcement officer career, so we must take advantage of the opportunity to learn from each and every experience to become more effective. How do we apply these lessons to shape or influence events so that we not only magnify our spirit and strength but also influence potential adversaries as well as the uncommitted so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success? Do we not owe it to ourselves, those we care for and those we serve to learn the most from each experience?

Recognizing Patterns of Behavior

“The first quality for a commander is a cool head which receives a just impression of things; he should not allow himself to be confused by either good or bad news; the impressions which he receives successively or simultaneously in the course of a day should classify themselves in his mind in such a way as to occupy the place which they merit; because reason and judgment are the result of the comparison of various impressions taken into just consideration.” ~Napoleon

It is said we recognize things through the rule of opposites. We understand day as compared to night, happy as compared to sad, failure from success, and peace from war and safety from danger. From the great book, The Gift of Fear by Gavin Debecker I remember a scenario that illustrates this rule of Pattern recognition and the rule of opposites:

A Repair man comes to the house to fix an item. What about his behavior is favorable (meaning his intentions are on the job at hand) or what about his behavior is unfavorable (meaning he may have other things on his mind)? Recognizing patterns of behavior and then their anomalies is critical to survival.

Here are some for you to consider as the repair man makes his house call.


  • Does his job and no more
  • Respectful of privacy
  • Stands at appropriate distance
  • Waits to be escorted
  • Keeps his comments to the job at hand
  • Mindful of the time-works quickly
  • Doesn’t care if others are home
  • Doesn’t care if others are expected
  • Doesn’t pay undue attention to you


  • Offers to help on unrelated tasks
  • Curious, asks too many questions
  • Stands too close
  • Walks around the house freely
  • Tries to get into discussions on other topics; makes personal comments
  • No concern about time; in no hurry to leave
  • Wants to know if others are home
  • Wants to know if others are expected
  • Stares at you

If you are away from home and out working the street which attributes, would you want loved ones to observe in the repair man visiting your home? The answer is rather obvious as it is very apparent as to which behavior does and does not fit the context of the situation. This simple lesson in recognizing patterns of behavior and the rule of opposites is a survival mechanism we should all etch in our minds not just for the repair man but for our street encounters as well.

Officer safety and effectiveness is hinged on knowledge and understanding. This knowledge and understanding is what we call situation awareness which is our ability to collect, correlate and store data in a fluid, dynamic environment, accurately predicting future events based on this real time data collection so we may decide and act accordingly. In other words we observe, orient, decide and act based on the unfolding and current conditions and what we believe these unfolding conditions mean.

The Boyd Cycle (OODA-LOOP) is a reflection of the decision and action cycles that are utilized in making decisions throughout daily encounters. These cycles can result from subconscious and conscious acts of observation and orientation. This means we must always be looking, exploring for behavior, to include conversation that doesn’t fit the context of the contact. This includes not only the overt furtive gestures often described in training. It includes also words and or actions such as; verbal tone, phrases that make no sense, micro facial expressions and non-verbal gestures that are incongruent with the circumstances as well as, any other outside obvious or subtle factors that may dictate changes in the circumstances making them more dangerous or that allow you to observe and orient to an opportunity to seize the initiative and gain voluntary compliance or physical control. Close observations and continually exploring the situation is paramount to making winning decisions and taking sound actions in dynamic encounters.

Situation awareness means possessing an explorer mentality

“A general never knows anything with certainty, never sees his enemy clearly, and never knows positively where he is. When armies are face to face, the least accident in the ground, the smallest wood, may conceal part of the enemy army. The most experienced eye cannot be sure whether it sees the whole of the enemy’s army or only three-fourths. It is by the mind’s eye, by the integration of all reasoning, by a kind of inspiration that the general sees, knows, and judges.” ~Napoleon

In order to effectively gather the appropriate information as it’s unfolding we must possess the explorer mentality and be able to recognize patterns of behavior and then recognize that which is outside that normal pattern. Then take the initiative so we maintain control. Every call, every incident we respond to possesses novelty. Car stops, domestic violence calls, robberies, suspicious persons etc, these individual types of incidents show similar patterns in many ways, for example a car stopped by an officers normally pulls over to the side of the road when signaled to do so, the officer when ready, approaches the operator, a conversation ensues, paperwork exchanges etc, etc, etc. A domestic violence call has its own normal patterns; police arrive, separate involved parties, take statements and arrest aggressor and advise victim of abuse prevention rights. We could go on like this for all the types of calls we handle as each type of incident on its own merits, does possess very similar patterns. Yet they always, and I mean always possess something different be it the location, the time of day, the person you are dealing with. Even if it’s the same person, location, time and day, the person you’re dealing who may now be in a different emotional state and his/her motives and intent may be very different and break that normal expected pattern, hence the need to always be open-minded, alert and aware, exploring for the signs and signals of positive or negative change in conditions.

In his Small Wars journal article “Thinking and Acting Like an Early Explorer” Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege (US Army Ret.) describes the explorer mentality; “while tactical and strategic thinking are fundamentally different, both kinds of thinking must take place in the explorer’s brain, but in separate compartments. To appreciate this, think of the metaphor of an early American explorer trying to cross a large expanse of unknown terrain long before the days of the modern conveniences. The explorer knows that somewhere to the west lies an ocean he wants to reach. He has only a sketch-map of a narrow corridor drawn by a previously unsuccessful explorer. He also knows that highly variable weather and frequent geologic activity can block mountain passes, flood rivers, and dry up desert water sources. He also knows that some native tribes are hostile to all strangers, some are friendly and others are fickle, but that warring and peace-making among them makes estimating their whereabouts and attitudes difficult.”

The metaphor of the early American explorer fits policing and the complex problems we face on the street daily. As we search for peaceful outcomes to the situations we encounter numerous unknowns despite the similarities, in the types of incidents and crises we observe day to day. Standard operating procedures, policy and procedure practices are all very useful when we have standard problem and things go as we plan but what happens when things deviate from the standard and go outside the normal patterns? Here is where we must rely on resilience and adaptation, our ability and knowhow. Experienced people using their insights, imagination and initiative to solve complex problems as our ancestors, the early American explores did.  As we interact with people in dynamic encounters, the explorer mentality keeps us in the game; it keeps us alert and aware. The explorer mentality has us continually learning as we accord with a potential adversary and seek to understand his intent to the best of our ability. An officer who possess the explorer mentality understands that an adversary has his own thoughts objectives and plans, many which he cannot hear, such as; “I will do what I am asked,” “I will not do what I am asked,” “I will escape,” “I will fight,” “I will assault,” “I will kill,” “I will play dumb until…,” “I will stab,” “I will shoot,” “he looks prepared I will comply,” “he looks complacent I will not comply, etc.” The explorer never stops learning and is ever mindful of both obvious and subtle clues of danger and or cooperation.

“The logic the explorer must follow is one that will exploit the potential for a successful crossing to the far ocean within the country the expedition is traversing, based on an understanding drawn from partial clues only. This is choosing a strategic logic or rationale to decide what short-term concrete ends are achievable, reflect progress and allow the expedition to learn how to make even more progress. Whatever his strategic rationale of the moment, it is only as good as his current understanding. It is inconceivable that any strategy of ways and means he could formulate at the outset would not require extensive revision as he progressed and learned more about the country. (Assuming he was not capable of easily overpowering all known and unknown potential difficulties – a very rare case, indeed.)” ~ Huba Wass de Czege, Brigadier General US Army, Retired

Strategic rationales for tactical actions are only good for the short term until they can be discarded and replaced by knowledge learned as a result of interacting with the complex environmental system you find yourself in. The environments are similar yet very different and in constant flux. Those we deal with could be hostile, friendly, and/or indifferent. The explorer’s journey into the wilderness, into the unknown is also a purposeful journey of learning. In fact, effective explorers are always improving their scouting. And the expedition’s maps (plans, tactics, techniques, policies and procedures) are constantly in adjustment. Because choosing a strategic rationale for the next tactical action is a conscious act of creation, the responsible peacekeeper must support it. The exploring officer takes responsibility for the strategic choices of routes and objectives on his journey into the unknown. The routes and actions he takes have a direct impact on the outcomes he seeks. This ability must be created and nurtured always. Its hard work and hard work means an effort must be made to develop the necessary skills of observation utilizing all your senses and then combining these observations with the ability to make tactical decisions implicitly and explicitly considering time, and risk and then apply them to the given set of circumstances. An officer who possesses the explorer mindset understands that circumstances dictate tactics and that it’s not the other way around. He understands his training and experiences, the procedures and methods he has learned will only help him when things go as planned. He also understands that when the irrational and unexpected unfold he just may have to use his own insight and initiative along with innovative tactical ideas. Possessing the explorer mentality you not only recognize the normal patterns of conflict and behavior but you recognize and adapt to their opposites, buying yourself some critical time, time to choose a tactical option that’s effective and safe.

A strategy is a hypothesis for exploiting “the way things appear to be” in a particular situation by taking a number of specific parallel and sequential concrete steps designed to advance toward some conceptual aim. ~Huba Wass de Czege, Brigadier General US Army, Retired

Stay Oriented!


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