Saturday, August 14, 2010

I learn about free-spirited decision making

This Friday, I was privileged to work with a local high school cross-country team as an evaluator at a local obstacle course. My AFROTC detachment uses this course to teach team building, as all the obstacles require multiple participants to complete. Several cadets and I have been volunteering at this course, as it is privately owned and operated. After a year of grass mowing and general maintenance around the place a few times a semester, we were invited to come and evaluate this cross-country team, coming as a beginning of semester team-building exercise.

Our group of cadets had already done the obstacles twice in the past two years, so it was fascinating to note the difference between AFROTC 19 year olds and the civilian high schoolers as they tackled the obstacles.

I learned a lesson from these kids as they tackled the obstacles. Our ROTC cadets rely on the analytical disciplines taught them by their respective degree fields, and the specific processes taught by our Air Force instructors and upperclassmen. A classic example of this nuanced thought process is the acronym used to describe a successful execution plan. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. We are taught to use each of these phases to ensure a complete, almost scientific approach to problem solving.

As I got ready to coach these high school students, I realized that they lacked this advanced training, and without the military discipline we have learned, I was unsure of how they would perform.

What I saw yesterday shocked me. Instead of seeing a group of amateurs trying to work together as a group, I saw a team that came together quickly to meet and even outperform our accomplishments on the course. They did lack the sophistication of military training, but what surprised me was that this tended to make their approach simpler and more matter-of-fact. They strategized more quickly, and started tackling the obstacles faster. They went on to finish obstacles that we got stuck or ran out of time on.

Two observations from this Friday morning at the obstacle course. First of all, trying to plan too far ahead can be a waste of time.  A leader should be able to make a decision and get the ball rolling if he or she has a general idea of how to attack a problem and specific details as to the beginning steps.  This concept is not promoting short-sightedness, but encouraging leadership to make a decision and get things started, even though every last theoretical problem may not have a complete resolution.  A good rule of thumb I have heard is that 70% of the information is enough to make an informed decision.

Secondly, don't let procedures and processes get in the way. I feel that acronyms like OODA are useful when learning how to make decisions, but are somewhat useless in actual decision making processes. They are useful to train the brain in proper methods of analyzing a situation, but when used as guides in a practical solution, they waste time and stunt the thinking process.

Sometimes we as military personnel, active or in training, think that we have to leave everything we have learned up to now in civilian life at the base checkpoint, and only use what the Department of Defense teaches us and think how they teach us to think. This could not be farther from the truth. Instead of brainwashing us, the Air Force teaches cadets how to use our personal life experiences and combine them with military discipline to make us even better leaders.

So next time I find myself in charge of a group of cadets, or evaluating other cadets in that position, instead of criticizing them for not robotically going through the phases of observation, orientation, decision, and action, I will encourage them to loosen up and think naturally. Instead of making their military training a maze through which they have to force themselves to come out the other side with a decision, I will encourage them to use their military training, alongside their personal life experiences, as a foundation on which they have freedom to make an intelligent decision.

AFROTC returns to train the new cadets at the obstacle course mid-September. Hopefully, this year we can combine the intuitiveness that I observed in the high school cross-country team with the traditional analytical skills of ROTC cadets to create top-notch, record-setting, obstacle-conquering super cadets!


  1. D...I love the way you think. I can't wait to find out how the fall obstacle course goes. Seems like you've discovered an awesome combination. xox

  2. This writing thing is kind of cool ... even if just a few people read it. It's not about the readership, but about getting to express yourself in a way that looks really awesome when you're done. Thanks for helping me get started :)