Observations on Nine Months of Decision-Making Training

Instead of pursuing a typical quarantine hobby (like baking homemade sourdough), John Schmitt spent his lockdown helping ROTC cadets further their military training. He describes the process of leading Tactical Decision Games remotely and the outcomes he observed.

A year ago last March, when Everything Changed, I got a call from my friend and colleague C.J. Douglas.  C.J. has made not one but two careers out of making life-and-death decisions in uncertain, volatile and dangerous situations.  He had recently retired as a trooper in the New York State Police, working mostly as a narcotics detective.  He was also a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, having made multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.  C.J.’s son Brit is a cadet in the Army ROTC program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.  RPI had just told its students not to return to campus after spring break because of the COVID outbreak.  Academic classes were moving online, but the weekly Military Science Lab, at which cadets received practical training, would be canceled.  C.J. was looking for a way for Brit to continue to receive at least some military training.  He asked if I would be willing to run a tactical decision game (TDG) with Brit.  

What is a TDG?

TDGs are deceptively simple military decision-making exercises usually consisting of no more than a map and a few paragraphs of text describing a situation.  Students are placed in the role of the commander of a unit with a mission and a specified set of resources.  You have some information about the enemy, but not as much as you’d like.  Then something unexpected happens, upending the situation and requiring you to come up with a new action plan on the spot. Then, after issuing your new orders, you must explain your assessment of the new situation and the rationale behind your decision.  First introduced in the Marine Corps over 25 years ago, TDGs have become a staple of Marine Corps training culture.  (You can get my TDG workbook Mastering Tactics here for free.) ShadowBox exercises derive from TDGs.   

I said I would be happy to lead a TDG if Brit could find 4 or 5 friends to join so that we could turn the exercise into a small-group discussion.  He did.  I loaded a map on Zoom and introduced a very simple scenario based on an incident from the Vietnam War:  You are a rifle squad leader in a Marine rifle platoon on patrol.  The platoon gets ambushed and is taking casualties.  Your squad is the only part of the platoon that is not pinned down.  You can’t communicate with the platoon commander.  What do you do—and why?  

Getting Into the Groove

The first session went better than I expected.  The cadets obviously had never done anything like this before. Their training up to this point had been strictly procedural and technical:  close-order drill, weapon assembly and disassembly, five-paragraph order writing, squad formations.  They had never been challenged to make tactical decisions in the face of uncertainty and extreme time pressure.  They struggled, but they ate it up.

C.J. had proposed this as a one-time event, but we were locked in with nothing better to do, so we decided to keep going and see where it went.  It went somewhere special and unexpected.  For the next 9 months we met every week on Zoom for a new TDG.  (We stopped only because our ShadowBox online course for law enforcement, “De-escalation and Tactical Decision Making,” was ready to roll out, and my schedule was booked.)  Week after week, we presented the students with a new tactical challenge—37 scenarios in all—and required them to come up with a solution on the spot in front of their peers under time pressure.  Then we would discuss the decision and draw out the tactical lessons.  Over time, I made the scenarios more complex and more challenging.  The size of our group grew.  More cadets from RPI joined.  A handful of Marine midshipmen from the University of Illinois Naval ROTC joined, and another handful from Ole Miss.  We got a few more Marines from the active forces.  C.J. participated every week to provide a voice of experience, and I also invited some of my old friends from my active-duty days who rotated in and out to offer insights and to expose the students to different experienced practitioners.  We added a second night of the week.  A few people dropped out and more joined, but we had a core group that participated in the whole experiment.  A typical 90-minute session would have 6-12 students and 3-4 mentors.  Brit wrote an article about his experience that was published by Infantry magazine.

A screenshot of a TDG group held via Zoom.

My biggest takeaways

Our TDG small group essentially turned into a 9-month experiment in training naturalistic decision making, and the effects on the cadets and midshipmen were profound.  Here’s what I observed:

  • First, there was no Rational Choice Theory on display anywhere; it was Recognition-Primed Decision Making (RPD) all the way—all pattern recognition and mental simulation; no comparing of options. (See my previous blog post for an in-depth explanation of RPD)
  • The students’ ability to assess the tactical situation improved dramatically.  They learned to see not just a collection of disconnected facts but to weave those facts together into a logical narrative that allowed them to fill in the gaps, infer causation and intent, and anticipate what was likely to happen next and why.  They began to see the situation from the enemy’s point of view and to recognize what the enemy might be attempting to do.  They learned how to “tell the enemy story,” as I like to put it.
  • They began to think tactically—not just to understand tactical concepts but to actually think differently—in terms of direct interaction with a hostile, intelligent will trying to impose itself upon them through any means possible—what the famous Prussian theorist Clausewitz called the Zweikampf, or “two-struggle.”  They began to think not just in terms of what they wanted to do and how, but in terms of how their what and how interacted with the enemy’s what and how.  They began to think in terms of action-reaction-counteraction.  They began to consider how their actions might induce certain enemy reactions and how they could exploit that to set an enemy up for defeat.  They learned to think 1 or 2 moves ahead.
  • They began to understand how their actions both influenced and fit into the larger situation.  They began to develop what computer scientist David Gelernter called “topsight”, the priceless ability to see the situation as from above, to “see the bigger picture” and understand how the pieces fit together.  They learned to “think two levels up” and to always ask themselves what they could do to contribute to the higher-level success.
  • They learned to be more comfortable with uncertainty—to act in ways that reduced it where feasible, yes, but more importantly, to act in ways that mitigated its effects.  The first lesson was acceptance.  Initially, their first instinct invariably was to try to get better situational awareness before deciding, regardless of the time spent and the opportunities forfeited.  They soon learned that they were never going to get certainty, so they should act without it.  (They also learned quickly that I would penalize them if they delayed action in the pursuit of certainty.)  One of the ways they learned to hedge against uncertainty was to keep a reserve—a unit initially kept out of the battle—to deal with unforeseen events.  By the end, a few were learning to act in ways that forced the situation to clarify—to make a move that forced the enemy to react definitively and reveal his intentions, for example—what I call “shaking the tree to see what falls out.”
  • Their ability to issue clear, concise and compelling orders improved dramatically.  At first they were concerned about issuing a “proper” five-paragraph order (which is what we call the format for a combat order).  By the end they were less worried about format and more worried about telling their people what they needed to know quickly and concisely.  (C.J. preached “five sentences in 50 seconds” as the standard.)
  • Their mental models improved exponentially in robustness and sophistication—they accounted for more contingencies (e.g., different enemy courses of action), incorporated more factors (e.g., multiple supporting arms), considered more opportunities (e.g., potential avenues of approach) and saw more potential combinations.  They began to appreciate the enemy as a complex system of interacting parts to be torn apart rather than as simply a unitary mass to be pummeled.  Over time, they began to recognize more patterns—and variations on those patterns.  From my perspective, this development of mental models was perhaps the most dramatic development of all.  By the end of the experiment, they were all thinking at a completely different level than when they had started.
  • Through repetition they became inured to the pressures of having to make a decision under uncertainty and extreme time pressure—not impervious to stress by any means but better able to handle it.  C.J. taught composure and controlled breathing at the moment of decision.  
  • Their knowledge of tactical concepts, terminology and weapons employment increased—which was to be expected.  Much more interestingly, they also developed a supplementary tactical language of their own that allowed them to communicate more efficiently and economically.  It was a sort of shorthand, but the terms were imbued with meaning based on their shared experiences.  So not only did the experience improve individual decision making; it also improved implicit, mutual understanding within the group. 

The experiment was a powerful experience for me as well.  It confirmed conclusively that with the right approach you most definitely can train people to be better decision makers.  I have now seen it demonstrated powerfully.  It also confirmed, however, that there are no easy shortcuts.  It requires an investment in time and effort, but I have no doubt it is worth that investment:  these young men and women as they begin their military careers will be much better prepared to meet the challenges they will face.