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Sense-making in a hostage situation

By Dave Snowden  ·  October 31, 2011  ·  Musings

I've been meaning to share this story for a bit. For some years now the Cynefin framework has been taught at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterrey and they also produced a wonderful alternative version of the children's party story. They recently sent me a story by Captain Richard Alexander of the Tulsa Police Department. It is a very pragmatic reflection and a good example of the legitimate use of Cynefin as a categorisation framework in operational use.

When police rookies hit the field, one of the first thing some of them hear from their training officer is," forget all that stuff you learned at the academy, I'll show you the way things are really done." Of course, this shouldn't be the case but the statement reflects the challenge in applying academic lessons to field work. Despite the challenge, an effort must be made to apply lessons learned in order to improve performance in the job.

I recently had an opportunity to apply lessons learned from the Naval Post Graduate school to an incident I was involved in. In brief, on May XX, 2011, a hostage situation occurred in [a major U.S. city]. As the officer arrived on the call, the suspect took the hostage and left the scene in a truck. Before it was all over, the suspect exchanged gun fire with officers, killed one bystander, fired shots after running into a Wal-Mart and hijacked a vehicle with a family in it, including their nine month old baby. The suspect eventually was shot by police and wrecked the vehicle. When I arrived, one suspect was still believed to be outstanding and the known suspect was in a truck posing a threat to officers. There were dozens of officers on scene with a total of six scenes, including a homicide scene, that needed to be secured.

I recognized that we were initially in the chaotic domain of the Cynefin framework.  During the shooting incident, there was little time for coordination. Officers were acting based on their experience and training, then adjusting their actions based their observations as the situation rapidly evolved. Though the situation was still chaotic when I arrived, I could see that we were transitioning into the complex domain where I was able to probe the incident and determine what actions were being taken and the extent of the incident. As I developed a better understanding of the situation at hand, I began to analyze the information I had to determine the course of action needed. Though I considered the use of the ICS [the Incident Command System], I did not formally implement it. This was a mistake that I believe kept the incident in the complicated domain rather than guiding it into the simple domain. While in the complicated domain, coordination and communication, though present, was not as effective as it could have been under the ICS system. If I had set up the best practice of ICS, the various elements or factors involved would have been easier to categorize and compartmentalize which would have transitioned the incident in the simple domain. This was a good lesson learned that could be taught and discussed in the classroom.