Key Lesson # 4 from Decision Science: a New Resource for Police Leaders. This lesson is an excerpt and you can download the full guide here.
Police performance depends on millions of decisions – at the frontline and in the board room. Can the sector strengthen its decision-making muscles by harnessing insights from decision sciences?
Lesson #4: Recognise when you need to think fast, or slow
A decision scientist encounters a knife-wielding attacker. Does she pause to carefully set out and weigh the importance of competing priorities, consult widely on the range of possible approaches to dealing with the situation, calculate probabilities of different outcomes, and create a ‘constrained optimization model’? We hope not. Because the literature from decision science is pretty clear that there are domains where we have to think fast. Equally, there are also plenty of domains where there is no point in thinking things through too much. Unless you opt for that weird font made out of clowns, the font of your internal memos isn’t going to matter too much…
Studies of decision-making tell us that while carefully structured analysis and deliberation supports better decision-making in relation to complex long-term issues, decision-making in time-critical environments depends much more on experience. Gary Klein is a decision scientist who focuses on how professionals make decision in the real world. His work demonstrates that experienced firefighters, pilots and so forth usually have a much greater ability to spot decision-relevant patterns in their immediate environment than non-experts. They sense when situations are routine (fitting a known pattern) and when something is ‘wrong’ (calling for a different response), for example. And they are adept at finding ‘good enough’ solutions to avert disaster by cycling through their past experiences and possible responses in rapid time.
To improve decision-making in time critical context, we should be wary of overly complex and formal processes and rules. Instead, we can consider factors such as:
- Mental state: Fatigue, stress and extremely heightened emotions (fear or anger, for example), have been shown to dramatically undermines human judgement. The current quest for improved officer wellbeing is warranted not just in terms of motivation for officers, and fairness, but also for decision-making performance.
- Training: The only substitute for experience is training that as closely resembles ‘on the job’ realities as possible. The military excel at creating more realistic training scenarios and there are exceptional examples within policing too. West Yorkshire Police and others are using augmented reality for scenes of crime training, for example.
- Rostering/ staffing/ team composition: Workforce planning and rostering often pays some heed to ensuring the right experience mix within teams and geographic areas of policing. However, with a rapid increase in new entrants into policing as part of the government’s drive to recruit 20,000 officers, this is an area that will need far greater attention and sophistication.
Of course, saying that experience matters in time-critical situations, is not to say that it’s the only thing to concentrate on. In general, the evidence suggests that experience often only improves decision-making up to a point (20 years is not always better than 10, for example) and it seems that if there is limited feedback on the quality of decisions, then experience carries many fewer benefits. This is why a big focus at Leapwise is supporting people and organisations to understand the consequences of their decisions – and learning the right lessons from success and failure.
This is a version of an article produced for Police Professional.
You can download the full guide complete with all 7 key lessons for police leaders below.