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DECISION-MAKING TRAPS Learn how to evaluate your options so you can avoid pitfalls and choose wisely in every situation.


aw enforcement is filled with decision-making. Some decisions are made in split seconds and others take days if not weeks to complete. It’s something that the job demands and expects us to get right. We are expected to maintain a gold standard but we don’t receive gold standard training. Yes, you are shown the criminal and civil statues that you will be working with. And yes, you have to know your own agency’s policy and procedures manual. And yes, you have senior officers around you that you can go to for help. But is that enough to handle the depth and scope of your decisionmaking? I think not. You need to go deeper in your understanding of this near art form. To improve your own skills, you need to learn about decision-making traps and how to use this knowledge to your advantage.

book “Decision Traps,” by J.E. Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, the authors detail a four-point process for how to arrive at a decision. I have had this book since it first came out in 1989, and though there is an updated version called “Winning Decisions,” I’ve kept the first edition in play as it has served me well. Whenever I am presented with an involved task, big project, or major decision at work, I refer to it often. As detailed in the book, there are four key elements to making any decision that you should become familiar with. Framing: Framing is a way of creating the question to be answered. The question is always more important than the answer; ask the right question and you get the right answer. The authors explain that “good decision-makers think about the viewpoint from which they and others will look at the issue and decide which aspects they consider important and which they do not.” TYPES OF DECISIONS In my opinion, this is the most imporI break down decision-making into tactitant part of decision-making as most miscal and strategic decisions. Tactical decitakes occur in the early stages of solving sions are those that require a “right now” the problem. It’s these early mistakes that type of answer. These decisions deal with eventually steer you off course and into a the immediate, give you little time to profaulty outcome. cess, and are the “in your face” type of isGathering Intelligence: This means sues. Strategic decisions are those that refinding facts and creating reasonable estiquire a “not now but later” type of answer. You can take your time with mates and parameters. Information is just These decisions are more deliberate, give strategic decisions. information until it’s processed, filtered, you plenty of time to process, and are the “soon to be in your face” type of issues. A good visualization and corroborated. Processed information therefore turns is comparing the decision-making differences between a into useful intelligence. Not everything we know applies to our situation and not everything we think we know is corroad patrol sergeant and a detective sergeant. A road patrol sergeant makes a hundred decisions a day, rect. The better the facts are, so goes the decision. Don’t ever whereas a detective sergeant may make a hundred deci- skimp on doing your homework as it will hurt you in the long sions a month. The road sergeant handles tactical decisions run. It’s like buying a used car; know the current price point that revolve around in-progress calls. The detective sergeant trends on the model you are hunting for and you won’t get handles strategic decisions that revolve around calls that ripped off at the dealership. Coming to Conclusions: The authors stress that “sound are over with. The road sergeant has to act now, whereas the detective sergeant can act later. This comparison sets up the framing and good intelligence don’t guarantee a wise decipremise for my discussion. I will be focusing on the more sion.” You still need a systematic approach to making your strategic side of the house and leave the tactical side for an- decisions rather than flying by the seat of your pants. You other day. In other words, how do you make good decisions have to create a structure filled with checks and balances to help you along the way. Decisions don’t just come to you, you when you have time to do so? fight to create them. Learning or Failing to Learn from Feedback: In law KEY ELEMENTS enforcement, this means having debriefs, creating lessons The first step is to have some type of methodology. In the 14


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Best Practices Tactical decisions are “now” decisions.

learned files, and writing detailed after-action reports. In theory, applying your lessons learned should make your new decisions better by not making the same mistakes twice. If you do make the same mistake twice, you’re either an idiot, you weren’t paying attention the first time, or both.

DECISION TRAPS The authors also suggest there are 10 decision traps to look out

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for. Not just because you might fall into them, but so you can watch out for others who already have. Why someone is thinking one way or another is more important than what that person is thinking. Knowing how to recognize these in yourself and others will give you a big advantage. Watch out for these: Plunging in: Your mistake becomes gathering information but reaching a premature conclusion. You fail to look at all sides of the issue you are working. You don’t look at all the information. Problems are seldom one dimensional, and without looking at all angles you fall short. In other words, you act before you have all the facts. Frame Blindness: This is where you set off to solve the wrong problem. You either overlook the best options or you lose sight of important objectives because you set up the wrong question. This is where your own bias comes into play. If you don’t keep an open mind, you won’t look at all the variables or options. A great deal of time and energy is spent following the wrong direction. The end always depends on the beginning. Lack of Frame Control: If Decision-Making Tips you don’t know your frame 1. Decision-making is the life’s you can’t explain it to others. blood of law enforcement. If you don’t understand the 2. You make either tactical or strategic decisions. frame of others you can’t understand their point of view. 3. Decision-making involves a four-part process. You also need to know when to 4. Watch out for decisionre-frame. What is a good frame making traps. today may not be so tomorrow. 5. Learn from past mistakes. Leave yourself room to maneuver. Don’t get emotionally attached to one solution. The goal is to solve the problem or work through the issue. Overconfidence in Your Judgment: This is where you fail to collect factual information because you are so sure of your assumptions and opinions. This usually manifests itself in the form of a senior person flexing their muscle on an issue. These are the guys that never leave their comfort zone, don’t learn anything new, and fail to grow with the times. They often say things like, “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Disco was great in its day too; today, not so much. Shortsighted Shortcuts: This is where you rely on “rules of thumb” or place too much emphasis on convenient information.


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Shortcuts are often used to get you in the ballpark but they seldom lead you to a home run on their own. Shortcuts can be used to jump-start your decision. You also need to keep in the back of your mind that the most readily available information is not necessarily the most accurate or pertinent information. Lazy fact finders give you the easiest information they obtained but their information is not necessarily the best. Shooting From the Hip: This means believing you can keep all the information in your head and avoid following a systematic procedure. Choosing where to eat lunch is one thing; deciding on what new patrol car your agency is going adopt is another. If you have people attending meetings without their notes, supporting data, and research, replace them immediately because they are not taking it seriously. You’ll also know if people are faking it because their answers will be emotional, opinionated, and misinformed. Group Failure: This is where you assume that since you are involved with a group of smart people it will be easy to come up with a decision. Some of the most difficult people I have ever had to deal with had college degrees or decades of experience. You still have to manage the group and control the process. Control the process and you control the outcome. People will acquiesce to more senior officers or members of command staff just to make life easier for themselves, or so they can leave work on time. Don’t let them. Fooling Yourself About the Feedback: This is where you fail to interpret or choose not to accept the lessons from past experience. You are either protecting your ego or are afraid of ruffling a supervisor or command staff’s feathers. How many times have high-fives been given instead of a more appropriately needed kick in the pants? The cool thing about the truth is you only have to deal with it once. Failure to Audit Your Decision Process: Neglecting to evaluate your process could derail your decision-making. You need to create your own decision-making process so you can always be aware of the traps and pitfalls you might encounter. But you also need to create some checks and balances to keep yourself on the right track. Establish early on what is acceptable and what is not. Create benchmarks and checklists to help you.

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Decision-making can either be tactical or strategic in nature.

Whatever you decide can have a good or bad outcome depending on how you set yourself up when first attacking the issue. The best thing you can do for yourself is know your job inside and out, know what your agency expects from you, and more importantly, learn from your mistakes. Not all bad decisions are career ending, but make enough of them and you will find yourself working somewhere else. Take measures to learn how to make quality decisions and you, your agency, and those you protect will benefit greatly from it. Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office. He has 25 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

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Decision-making Traps  
Decision-making Traps  

An artical on strategic versus tactical decision-making.