In the Marines, I learned about a program referred to as Small Unit Decision Making (SUDM).  The goal of the program is to improve the intuitive decision making ability of unit leaders who are operating in an increasingly decentralized manner.  In plain English, it means to develop the ability to assess, decide and act in the constantly changing situations experienced overseas. I’m a big supporter of the program because instead of teaching a Marine “what to think,” the goal is to teach them “how to think.” This problem solving ability in dynamic environments is not unique to the Marine Corps, but applies to all fields.

Of the five core competencies outlined in the SUDM program (sense-making, attention control, adaptability, problem solving, and meta-cognition), the first two are significant benefits of using a behavioral analysis approach to security operations.  Mastering these two competencies can truly empower the “guy on the ground” to make informed and accurate decisions amongst the inherent uncertainty that exists.  The first competency, attention control, is the ability to maintain focused attention and awareness on a chosen target.  In The CP Journal, we refer to these targets as the anomaly.  These are the criminals, insurgents, terrorists, key leaders and persons of interest we are looking for.  These are the people we want to observe and take action on, whether that is to conduct additional surveillance, collect information from, or detain.  Targets of our attentions need to be the people who stand out from the crowd.

Being an anomaly is a relative term.  If you are going to “stand out,” you have to stand out from something.  That something is the baseline – the norm for your area and the people within it. Establishing the baseline is the sense-making component of the SUDM approach that behavioral analysis plays a significant role in supporting.   This is the ability to estimate and understand the situation in any given environment. Sense-making is only possible when a person is able to recognize the patterns and routines that make up the area so that you can recognize any shifts or changes.

The benefit of developing your ability in these two SUDM competencies is easily understandable. The more quickly a person can understand their surroundings and identify those who require further attention results in a much more effective operator. It isn’t the need to develop these two skills is not what I am trying to convince you of, but how to go about attaining the requisite skills.

Recognition Primed Decision Making

To develop the ability to quickly make decisions amongst uncertainty and changes, we turn to decision-making expert Dr. Gary Klein for a way forward.  In his book Sources of Power – How People Make Decision he discusses how people approach a situation as being familiar and typical or one that requires further investigation.  The greater the familiarity with the situation in front of you compared to experiences you have already gained, the faster the speed at which decisions can be made.  What is significant about this, is that assessing a situation as being “familiar” doesn’t mean that a person has been in that exact experience before.   The scenario only has to be prototypical of other experiences that you have had.  Diagnosing a situation as typical allows a person to quickly understand what the goals should be for dealing with the problem, what cues are important and what cues are not important, predict what is expected to occur next and develop courses of action that are likely to succeed.  That makes the goal of training to enhance our intuitive Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD) process the accumulation of more meaningful experiences that allow us to find commonalities across scenarios.

This is why we recommend that you practice observing behaviors with videos.  Practice the process of establishing a baseline for different areas (making sense of your surroundings) by looking for videos where you can observe a new setting and constantly improving the intuitive ability of a person to assess the behavioral baseline.  The goal is to make these experiences meaningful to you and your job.  You can use videos that analyze the body language from a Presidential Debate or other public figures to highlight a specific observation that tiy want to make, but to increase the chances that you apply that observation in a different setting; you need to provide those lessons in the context of realistic environment.

Taking the Best From Blue’s Clues

The Nickelodeon children’s TV show Blue’s Clues has developed a great model for learning.  What they found is that the first time a person is exposed to something complex, they pick up on only a small percentage of the information available.  If a person is exposed to the exact same situation a second time, the quantity of the collected information increases, and continues to rise with each subsequent exposure.  Repetition is the key to learning.  By watching a video clip numerous times over the course of a week (not cramming it into a single sitting) and establishing a baseline using different elements of behavior each day, the number of observations a person can make will rise.  This will help you create familiarity with the observations and in the process of developing a deep true understanding of the area you are observing.

While we can’t recreate every situation that a person might experience overseas, we can build the file folders and experience in related settings.  The first video training segment comes from a mall food court.  While a Marine on patrol in Helmand Province won’t be operating in a food court, the assessments and patterns could be very similar to the behavior seen in a busy market.  By systematically going through the different areas we will show, we can expand the database of experiences a Marine, police officer, and security guard need to quickly identify the patterns of the areas they are in.  This is what will allow you to quickly shift from establishing a baseline to identifying the criminals and insurgents hiding amongst the crowd.

Deliberate Practice and Focused Feedback – Closing The Learning Loop

Each day of the week should have new observations for you to focus on.  Make classifications about the area and then back up those assessments using specifics from each of the domains.  Don’t short change this part of the process or rely on simply “thinking” about it, but actually write it down.  To get the most amount of benefit from this type of practice, you have to become an active participant in the learning process. This will also help you remember what you observed on the following day when you compare your notes with my assessment of the scenario.  While my observations are certainly not the final answer and you may make observations that I miss, having the point of comparison should assist your growth.

Spending 5-10 minutes going through this process each day is the dedication required to become a professional and build stronger mental models.  Michael Jordan shot free throws every day. Payton Manning rehearses the routes that his wide receivers run.  Boxers and MMA fighters practice their jab.  They do it because that’s what it takes to win, even if it is something they have already learned how to do.  Developing the ability to identify an enemy hiding in plain sight requires the same dedication.


Want to see other books that we have read and recommend? Take a look at our complete reading list for our other suggestions.