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Has anyone ever told you, “Here is another tool for your toolbox.”  As a Marine, I hated hearing those words, and I still cringe when an instructor utters that phrase to our nation’s police officers during a training seminar. The phrase often implies that the key to professional competency is to pack as much information into a student’s brain as possible, regardless of its future usefulness. When it comes to developing an officer’s ability to make effective decisions, quickly making sense of a situation doesn’t come from having more information or even more “tools” to use, but instead from applying finely tuned mental models to adapt to rapidly changing situations. It’s through these mental models developed over an officer’s career that they can quickly identify present patterns and use the information they have more effectively.

As a police officer, the only person responsible for ensuring your professional development is yourself. To get the most out of your time spent in training, it requires that you have a process to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the topic being taught. To help you assess the tools that instructors and authors are trying to provide you with, here are three questions that can help you determine how important that tool is.

Question #1: Where in your model does the current class fit?

As a police officer, it’s important to be building your own framework and mental models that you use to make decisions and see through uncertainty. While John Boyd’s OODA Loop is something that is often taught in an overly simplified manner, it can serve as a system to help guide your learning and decision-making. The observe, orient, decide, and act steps in the loop match the recognition-primed decision-making model researched by Dr. Gary Klein as he shows how people naturally take in the information provided by the environment, make sense of those facts by comparing the situation to previous experience, simulate the outcome of different plans, and act upon them.

Because the OODA Loop provides an explicit breakdown of the process that police officers use to learn and to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, the first question you can ask about your training is what part of the OODA Loop the class will improve your performance in? Will it improve my observation while in Condition Yellow and help me collect higher quality information about my surroundings? Will it improve how I orient by showing how I can better make sense of those facts collected to better understand the situation? Will the class help me make a better decision about how to proceed or improve the way I perform when executing those plans?

A class that you’re attending or a book that you’re reading should support at least one of these four steps for the various decisions that you make in your job. If it isn’t clear, then your ability to apply the lessons following the class is going to be severely limited, which lowers the overall value of the class. Assessing your personal strengths and weaknesses at each of the four steps of the OODA loop can also help you determine which classes are going to provide the most value and which classes will only be reinforcing your current strengths.

Question #2: Is this tool broadly or narrowly applicable?

Once you have determined which part of the OODA Loop the class you are attending supports, the second factor that determines a particular class’s strengths or weaknesses is if it is broadly or narrowly applicable. What you will want to note about the topic is if the approach being taught will apply in all situations or only in specific scenarios.

Let’s say you were in a class learning about the Department of Homeland Security’s warning signs of violence[i] and listening to a lecture about why a person who is having marital, financial, or substance abuse problems are pre-event indicators to workplace violence. Because all of these factors require that an observer has specific personal knowledge about a person, this would be a narrowly applicable tool because you would need a second tool to assess the intentions of those people who you have no pre-existing personal knowledge about.

If a tool is narrowly applicable, it means that multiple tools will be required to fill one of those four steps of observation and assessment highlighted in the previous question. This will slow down the decision-making process because, in addition to collecting the information and facts in the observation portion, you have to first decide which tool to use. Especially in the context of ensuring officer safety and quickly recognizing violent people before they launch their assault, having to choose between multiple narrowly focused tools or observation techniques risks causing hesitancy in the face of an imminent threat.

Question #3: In what other settings can I use this tool so that I can master it?

Before applying a concept taught in a class in your job, you will naturally want to be confident that the process is going to be effective for you. The best way to achieve this level of confidence is through the repeated deliberate practice of the concepts taught in less risky situations than what characterizes the day-to-day life of a police officer. If the topic being taught only works in high risk situations or can only be applied in events that occur with a low frequency, the opportunities for you to master the topics and improve your decision-making will be much lower than classes that provide application in a wider variety of situations.

In conclusion, for officers to continuously improve their decision-making abilities throughout their careers, they need the ability to assess not only their personal strengths and weaknesses, but also those being taught in the classes, training programs and books selected for their professional development. The three questions discussed above can help police officers chart their personal course forward by better understanding what part of their decision-making process a course is designed to improve.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at a similar article that Patrick wrote, “Re-engineering the Toolbox: Beyond the Cliché.

[i] Violence in the Federal Workplace: A Guide for Prevention and Response