Adaptive Decision Making as a Deliberate Counter VUCA Tactic


In a recent article entitled Capturing the Moment: Counter- VUCA Leadership for the 21st Century, Javidi and Ellis (2015) introduced the concept of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) to policing. In essence, VUCA is chaos and it falls on police to understand it, prepare for it, mitigate it and minimize the disruptive and destabilizing effects of it.

All crises are fraught with uncertainty. While uncertainty must be reduced to the maximum possible extent, it can never be completely eliminated. Accordingly, efforts will always be necessary to deal with the unexpected, complex and ambiguous (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Effective leaders are compelled to continually improvise, innovate, and adapt to ever changing circumstances, deliberately. The most successful leaders are able to both anticipate a change and promptly deal with it. Developing these types of leaders then becomes an imperative for law enforcement organizations locally, regionally and nationally.

The concept of adaptive decision making is best understood as the mental process of effectively reacting to a change in a situation. In the simplest terms, it refers to problem solving. There are three major factors involved. First, the essence of the concept is a behavior change. Obstinately continuing a course of action despite significant changes in the circumstances is not adaptive even if it is effective. Second, whatever responses are employed must be effective. It makes no sense if they make things more difficult. Lastly, any response must be in reaction to a change of circumstances. Change for its own sake is not adaptive.

Whether leaders are adaptable and to what extent can be attributed nearly entirely to three factors, all of which are present in every instance (White, et. al. 2005). The first involves the personal traits and characteristics of a particular leader. Every leader has a unique and infinitesimal combination of knowledge, experience, education, courage, skills, imagination, intuition, ingenuity and other attributes. These work singly and in combination to inhibit or foster effective reactions. The second is the organizational rules, norms and culture that encourage or discourage adaptive behavior. Organizations that dogmatically punish failure are not conducive to experimentation or exploration. Understandably, leaders that emerge from this type of environment are reluctant to deviate from norms. The third is the extent that a person is trained to recognize and adjust to changing circumstances. This last factor is particularly important because of the implied potential for increasing creativity, ingenuity and effectiveness by preparing people to lead in chaotic and ever-changing situations.

While much study has been done on developing skills to enable people to “think on their feet,” (Anderson, Gisborne, & Holliday, 2012), definitive methods have yet to be identified. Undoubtedly this is partly because training is only one of the three factors involved. By nature, some people are more bold and imaginative than others and so they enjoy natural advantages. Likewise, some organizations are more accepting of risk than others and so even leaders with average abilities enjoy advantages over exceptionally endowed people but who find themselves operating under a discouraging or threatening administration. It does appear, however, that training can enhance abilities to adapt, both individually and organizationally.

The most critical aspect for enhancing organizational adaptability is with a nurturing environment. Organizations who routinely encourage and reward creativity, ingenuity, and innovation not only encourage such practices among those assigned but serve to attract those who desire to work in such an environment. Of particular note is that simply providing a policy to that effect is ineffectual. It is only in practice that the culture becomes relevant. The most nimble-minded people are also the most perceptive of hypocrisy and will not miss any disparity between policy and practice.

It is with improving abilities in individuals, however, that training appears most promising. Studies of leaders who seem particularly adept in this area reveal two fundamental processes in sequence (White, et. al. 2005. The first is that they have an existing pattern from training or experience, even if only remotely similar, from which to draw upon. They mentally compare the present problem with this existing mental image which in turn provides insight and ideas of what might work. In other words, they have developed intuition. The second is they don’t accept the idea at face value but rather they then conduct a mental simulation which allows them to mentally compare and “test” their intuition with the present circumstances. This mental simulation includes an “action sequence” in which one state of affairs is transformed and compared with another. In this manner, effective adaptive decision makers can be best understood to have thought the problem through further than others.

When developing a training program for adaptive decision making, two principles have proven especially beneficial. The first is to expose students to challenging scenarios simulating those expected to be encountered and which are designed to incorporate a need to recognize and adapt to a change in the situation (Anderson, Gisborne, & Holliday, 2012). These are normally done in one of four ways; moderated discussions, practical applications, decision making exercises and free play exercises. Regardless of the format of the training, the most fundamental requirement is that there is at least one change in a situation sufficient enough to challenge the status quo. As the training progresses and students become bolder, different situations are added and more varieties of change are injected, even to include the bizarre. Each of these altered states widens the scope and deepens the depth of all participants’ understanding and serves as experience for other situations in the future, including real-life ones. This is because humans naturally seek satisfactory resolutions and avoid actions and decisions that have already proven unproductive. They become experts in a particular problem and setting because they have the advantage of having already thought through the problem—even if it was only hypothetical. The critical aspect of this training for the students is not just the process but the feedback. Feedback includes input, criticism, suggestions, comparisons and other types of collaborative problem solving that is a necessary part of human understanding. Especially important is recognizing the need for change because diagnosis has proven to be among the most difficult skills to teach.

The tactical and deliberate leaders most readily able to adapt are not only agile in thought but deeply immersed in the supporting science. They are fully aware of human limitations and possess domain specific knowledge which enables them to more quickly identify problems. They have developed a wide repertoire of experience from both actual incidents and training. Perhaps most importantly, they remain focused on the end state regardless of problems and setbacks. It is no surprise that despite the worst possible circumstances they seem to be successful more often than not.


Anderson, T., Gisborne, K., & Holliday. P. (2012). Every officer is a leader: Coaching
leadership, learning and performance in justice, public safety, and security organizations. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing.

Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: Strategies for taking charge. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Javidi, M. & Ellis, B. (2015). Capturing the moment: Counter-VUCA leadership for 21st century policing. Law Enforcement Today (LET): The Law Enforcement Community. Available [Online]:

White, S., Mueller-Hanson, R., Dorsey, Pulakos, E., & Michelle M. Wisecarver, M., Deagle III, E., & Mendini, K. (2005). Developing Adaptive Leaders in Special Forces. U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences

About the authors

Charles “Sid” Heal is a retired commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and retired from the Marine Corps as a CWO-5 with four tours of combat in four different wars. He holds two graduate degrees in management and is the author of Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer and Field Command, both focusing on tactical science. He is currently serving as the NTOA’s section chair for Strategy Development and is the author of the “Tactical Concepts” column featured in The Tactical Edge.

Mitch Javidi, Ph.D., is the founder of the International Academy of Public Safety, the Institute for Credible Leadership development and the Criminal Justice Commission for Credible Leadership Development. As a globally recognized expert on leadership development, Mitch has trained leaders at the Joint Special Operations Command, and the US Army Special Operations Command and is an honorary member of the United States Army Special Operations Command. A past tenured Associate Professor at NC State University, he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor at NC State and Illinois State Universities. He is a member of the “Academy of Outstanding Teachers and Scholars” and the Distinguished 2004 Alumni of the University of Oklahoma. Honorary Sheriff Mitch Javidi holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and is the co-founder of the International Academy of Public Safety (IAPS), Sheriffs Institute for Credible Leadership Development, and the Criminal Justice Commission on Credible.

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