Exploring intuitive decision-making

Giving military commanders timely access to information is only half the battle, a Marine Corps leader recently said. Delivering it in an intuitive fashion so that the commanders can make quick decisions is the next challenge.

Military systems tend to generate data in static checklist form, said Brig. Gen. Jerry McAbee, deputy commander of the Marine Corps' Marine Forces Pacific. But "the checklist approach to decision-making is not what we need for the 21st century," he said. Military leaders need a networked knowledge system that draws information from databases worldwide.

This system should present them with the best — even if incomplete — set of facts in a conflict situation, from which they can make an intuitive decision on how to act, McAbee said, adding that commanders' use of intuition in battle is what puts "war in the realm of art rather than science."

The system that McAbee described is still years, maybe even decades, away from becoming a reality. The first step, however, should be determining the right stimuli to spark an individual's intuitive reasoning, and through what senses those stimuli are best delivered, he said.

Speaking last month at AFCEA International's TechNet Asia-Pacific 2002 Conference in Honolulu, McAbee said that virtual reality training and simulation systems have given the military a glimpse into the future, but that new technology is needed to complete the vision.

"Instead of trying to deliver a perfect picture of the battlefield, we need to shift from that because the battlefield is chaotic and commanders are trained early on in their careers to make decisions based on their experience, intelligence and intuition," McAbee told Federal Computer Week.

He said that all people do that differently — some prefer audio aids, while others prefer information presented visually.

"One shoe doesn't fit all," McAbee said. "We need to tailor that stimuli. I think it will be incremental and we may never [fully] develop the system, but we need to start down that road and start developing the system in some areas to assist commanders in intuitive decision-making."

Gary Klein, chief scientist at Klein Associates Inc., a research and development firm that focuses on decision-making, said he concurs with McAbee's vision of working to design information technology that supports intuitive decision-making, but acknowledged that it would take time to accomplish.

"I think there are actions that can be taken in the near future to make the technology more compatible with intuition, but the more comprehensive design Gen. McAbee is describing will take decades and some breakthroughs, as [he] indicates," Klein said.

Klein, who is a cognitive psychologist and author of "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions," said one of the chapters in his latest book, "Intuition at Work," is devoted to the question of how to design IT that supports, rather than interferes, with intuitive decision-making.

McAbee said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who "has done more thinking on this than anyone else," inspired his knowledge system vision.

Van Riper was in the news a few months ago when he claimed the Defense Department's $250 million Millennium Challenge 2002 experiment was fixed to let the "friendly" forces win. DOD denied his claims. "I'm not sure the DOD grasps this [intuitive approach] yet," Van Riper said, adding that there are new concepts within the department that run contrary to the idea. Specifically, he cited Joint Forces Command's use of operational net assessment, which is a systems analysis of decision-making.

Klein said information overload is the main challenge with the intuitive approach that Van Riper and McAbee advocate.

"Some of the common approaches to solve this problem may actually make it worse — using artificial intelligence to do the searching will only reduce the decision-maker's intuitive feel for the data," he said.

DOD has taken the lead in exploring "decision-centered design approaches that support intuition," Klein said, "probably because it is encountering the most severe consequences of information technology that is rejected in the field because it is incompatible with intuition." He added that there is a growing interest in this area from numerous other government agencies, including NASA.

McAbee presented examples dating back to the Revolutionary War, when partnerships among the government, industry and research communities created technologies that played to commanders' strengths and helped the United States win. He asked the conference audience to do their part to make history repeat itself.

Van Riper agreed.

"These ideas are not that new," but have been pushed aside for various reasons over the years, he said.


Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper says the checklist and intuitive approaches are legitimate ways to make decisions, but the approach must match the circumstances.

Intuitive decision-making should be used if a mission is time-sensitive and experienced people are in charge. But if inexperienced workers are tackling a new problem and have time to work, the checklist system is the better choice.

For example, fighter pilots should always review their aircraft checklists before taking off, but those same pilots would not use that system in air combat if they want to survive, Van Riper said. Gary Klein, chief scientist at Klein Associates Inc., a research and development firm, agreed and said the need for accountability is one of the main reasons the Defense Department continues to rely so heavily on checklists.

"The drive for accountability and precise measurement pushes people into checklists so that progress can more easily be measured" even if the progress is illusory, Klein said. "In addition, if organizations do not trust the competence of their decision-makers, they are likely to establish rigid checklists. These tendencies are increasing, rather than diminishing, and the result is often that intuitive decision-making skills aren't developed or available when needed."


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards - https://governmentinnovationawards.com

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected