Intuitive Decisionmaking

by LtCol Leonard A. Blasiol

When I received my April 1996 Gazette, I turned immediately to the Tactical Decision Game (TDG), as always, and worked the problem. Later, when reading that issue’s round of debate on the subject of intuitive decisionmaking, I thought about the technique I had used to develop my solution to the TDG: I’d analyzed the mission, identified several courses of action, quickly analyzed those options according to various criteria, and selected the “best” of them for execution. It felt intuitive, but in reality I had instinctively and subconsciously resorted to the standard analytical model of FMFM 3-1.

Reviewing my thought process, I realized that my first course of action could have accomplished the mission, although it entailed a great deal of risk. My second choice minimized risk. The whole process took me about 4 minutes (Maj John F. Schmitt, author of the game, allowed me 10). So, by resorting to that age-old analytical method (streamlined through internalization and several major shortcuts), I hit upon a better decision than that originally considered, and still within the game’s time limit.

Intuitive decisionmaking is a worthy goal, but there’s an irony to it. Maj Schmitt, who also authored one of the decisionmaking articles, stressed that intuition is based on experience. So we can conclude that as we move down the chain of command to the level of company grade officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), the quality of intuition will be correspondingly degraded as the level of experience decreases. Unfortunately, the further down the chain we look, the more likely it is that leaders will find themselves in situations requiring rapid decisions. Historically, commanding generals rarely, if ever, find themselves having to make immediate decisions. At the other end of the spectrum, a sergeant commanding a squad in combat may be forced to make scores of immediate decisions every day. So, the leader with the most highly developed intuition-the general-rarely uses that talent, while the leader whose need for intuition is greatest-the NCO-lacks the requisite experience.

I agree with Maj Schmitt’s contention that intuitive decisionmaking can’t be taught-it must be learned. Sadly though, it is improbable that even a reasonable percentage of Marines are capable of such learning. A hint of the reason for that may be found in Cdr James J. Tritten’s fine article of that same issue, “Intuitive Combat Decisionmaking.” Cdr Tritten noted that, “If anything, the desired Myer-Briggs Type Indicator pattern at the highest levels of the military are ‘NT’ (intuitive thinking).” When the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator was administered at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in the late 1980s, the results indicated that more than 90 percent of Marine Corps officers displayed the “SJ” preference (sensing-judging), the polar opposite of the preference that indicates a capacity to develop and use intuition. While people can learn to use skills that fall outside their own set of preferences (as Cdr Tritten stated) we must remember that to do so can be very challenging, like forcing oneself to breathe. In a demanding situation, such as combat, people will typically resort to their “comfort zone.”

What is perhaps the most revealing comment on this subject to appear in the April 1996 issue was in an unrelated article. In a fine piece entitled “On Going To War,” LtGen Bernard E. Trainor wrote:

. . . I learned a lot in those final 72 hours of TBS. Most of all I learned how easy it is to become mistake prone when cold, wet, sleepless, and fatigued over a prolonged period of time. It was then that the rote repetition of things like the five paragraph combat order, the seven troop leading steps, and immediate action drills suddenly made sense. They allow an officer to engage in automatic when the brain can’t handle manual. It was a lesson I appreciated the rest of my career.

The 10 percent who possess the rare characteristic described by T.E. Lawrence as “the flash of the kingfisher” (itself the subject of a fine article in these pages some years ago) can decide intuitively under the most demanding circumstances. For the other 90 percent of us, perhaps there is some value in the structure afforded by analytical methods.