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Cognitive Agility: Providing the Performance Edge

Executive Summary

The UK MOD believes that cognitive agility is increasingly required by Defence personnel to manage future demands from an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) environment. This article defines cognitive agility and the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes. It also identifies some challenges related to improving how Defence targets cognitive agility in terms of development and learning through training, education, and experience. The article seeks to understand where this sort of capacity/capability development fits in the Defence learning eco-system and asks readers to comment based on their experience: on both the concept of cognitive agility, and the terrain relating to the development or improvement of cognitive agility (champions, stakeholders, institutions, organisations and so forth).


MOD psychologists have been exploring a variety of aspects of cognitive performance in Defence personnel including mental resilience (the ability to handle stress and pressure) and mental health (in terms of reducing and recovering from the impacts of stress and conflict on psychological functioning).  Over the past decade, UK Defence concepts and doctrine publications have described a set of requirements for cognitive performance that are focused upon decision-making in VUCA environments.  Fundamentally, these requirements are about better understanding, better thinking and better decision-making, albeit in an environment that places additional demands on thinkers and decision makers. 1  These requirements apply in a range of contexts, from gaining competitive advantage over adversaries in conflict (in the physical, virtual and cognitive domains), to managing the repercussions of an infectious disease outbreak or solving complex procurement problems.

In response to such requirements, concepts and doctrine has offered – yet not defined – a family of related terms. For example, Joint Concept Note 2/17 Future of Command and Control refers to ‘cognitive flexibility’ and “adaptive expertise” as enabling factors for agile command and control. 2

We introduce the term ‘cognitive agility’, both to meet these requirements and to incorporate these existing terms.  The definition must provide clarity for capability development (primarily through education and training).

Defining cognitive agility

Cognitive psychology offers a relatively narrow definition3 of cognitive agility as an individual’s capacity to flexibly operate with openness and focused attention. That is, cognitive agility is based on openness to alternatives, flexibility to respond with alternative solutions, and the ability to change the focus of attention between wide and narrow perspectives for deep analysis whilst also not missing new information in a changing context.

Previous (and closely-related) MOD research4 has focused on the value of experience and experiential learning in supporting the development of adaptive expertise.  This concept includes adaptive thinking and decision-making skills and is defined as the ability to detect problems or anomalies in a situation (or plan) and to respond in a timely and effective manner.

We offer a broad definition5 of cognitive agility:

the emergent product of an individual’s capacity to apply various knowledge, skills and abilities, and attitude, required to make rapid assessments, judgments and decisions for relative competitive advantage in anticipation of or in response to changes in the situation or recognition of one’s own cognitive limitations.6

Cognitive agility falls fairly squarely7in the human performance domain. The development of cognitive agility therefore includes critical challenges for Defence People.

The goal

Our goal is that Defence personnel are equipped with the required knowledge, skills, abilities, capacities, and attitudes for making better decisions. “Better decisions” means better than before, and better than the adversary. “Better decisions” is always in the context of one or more of the following factors: time pressure, uncertainty and ambiguity (due to the situation and/or data deluge), limited sleep and other resource constraints. Better can mean faster, more efficient with respect to resources, more rigorous or more thorough, more creative, but ultimately is relative to the demand. This demand is generated by one or all of: an agile and/or intelligent adversary, a fast-moving situation or a complex sometimes chaotic problem.

Unpacking cognitive agility

What does the term cognitive agility actually mean? With respect to cognitive performance, when we unpack the definition, it concerns the apparatus (brains and tools), resources (knowledge and information) and strategies (techniques and processes) of cognitive work. Cognitive work entails:
• Detecting problems or anomalies;
• Anticipating deviations from the expected (progress, behaviour, effects);
• Assessing situations and making sense of conflicting, ambiguous, surprising information;
• Diagnosing problems;
• Explaining what and why the situation is as it is;
• Generating alternative options;
• Evaluating the impacts of current events or actions;
• Predicting the impacts of future events or actions;
• Comparing the current situation to the expected situation to spot deviations;
• Evaluating alternatives;
• Piecing together arguments or cases; and
• Choosing between alternatives (either assessments or actions).

Doing this cognitive work effectively relies on a number of factors that, we argue, all support cognitive agility:
• Experience
• Knowledge
• Mental models of how the world works
• Self-awareness
• Techniques for disciplined thinking
• Creative thinking,
• Collaborative engagement, and
• Both proactivity and responsiveness.

Developing cognitive agility

Developing our people to be more cognitively agile requires approaches to improving all the aspects of cognitive work identified above. Defence currently does this in all of the following ways:
• Training “thinking techniques” (such as Estimate processes, Red teaming and systems thinking);
• Developing knowledge through Professional Military Education (e.g. military case studies; expert reflections);
• Providing experiences (simulated, field exercise or decision games) and the requisite opportunities for feedback and reflection through group debriefs (AAR; the Mess);
• Supporting learning from operational experience; and
• Encouraging individual reflection.
Given the requirement for cognitive agility to support better decision-making in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, there are undoubtedly examples of both good (or even best) and bad practice in all of the above.

Some questions

What does it actually mean to be cognitively agile? Where does agility stop and “Just do it!” begin? Do we already have enough cognitive agility? What are the target knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes required to be cognitively agile?

To support the development of cognitive agility, the key question is, “How do we improve cognitive agility in our personnel?”  We also ask, “do we have the right balance?” For example, do we need to spend more time on the practice of decision-making (e.g. through decision games) and less time in the classroom? Do we need to spend more or less time on debriefing? Do we need alternative ways to debrief and learn from experience? Do we need a greater focus on individual or collaborative decision making contexts?

Further, as with cognitive performance of any type, the biggest challenge is always: how do you know whether the learning improved the decision making? Does the training or education or experiential learning work? Could we be doing it better and, if so, how?

Further, as with cognitive performance of any type, the biggest challenge is always: how do you know whether the learning improved the decision making? Does the training or education or experiential learning work? Could we be doing it better and, if so, how?

Request for commentary

What do you think? What are the examples of best practice that you have come across which have supported the measurable/evident development of improved cognitive performance and ultimately improved “agility”? Where does cognitive agility fit in the defence “learning eco-system”? Does Defence culture support an emphasis on cognitive skills and abilities? Do our current training and education systems support the development of the required cognitive skills and knowledge?

A hot topic

We have written this piece because we are currently in the middle of a research activity to explore the concepts and questions described in the article. This work is funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and is focused on maximising human performance through training and education. It is based on prior academic research exploring recent developments in our understanding of cognitive work, and the interventions and training principles which have emerged which appear to provide some of the marginal gains in cognitive performance. We are looking at how we might apply those in a UK MOD context with the overall aim of improving the cognitive agility of defence personnel.

To achieve this aim, there is work to be done. Firstly, there is a need for the development and convergence of the terminology, supported by its articulation in concepts and doctrine. Secondly, there is a need for policy to support the application of best practice and to support the evaluation of emergent practice in developing these hard-to-measure cognitive capabilities. Thirdly, there is a need for approaches to learning and development, to provide the required training interventions (principles, content, guidance and structures), and the required learning support structures (trainers/facilitators, opportunities, culture, assessment, assurance, etc.).

So what?

We are seeking to find the right niche for the development of cognitive agility in the MOD. We decided to approach this from the ground up and to understand what the diverse and experienced readers of the Wavell Room have to say, and to potentially help us position this within the right community: be it trainers, educators, leadership development or unit-led development.

Our immediate goal is to develop a framework which encapsulates current best practice as well as emergent approaches and identifies where in the MOD “eco-system” this work sits (and who the champions might or should be). With the engagement of the right stakeholders, the intention is to generate an MOD blueprint for improving the development of cognitive performance and a roadmap to get there.

If you are interested in the development or outcomes of the work, please contact one of the authors for further information: Rob Hutton 8 and Paddy Turner 9.

Rob Hutton

Rob is an applied cognitive psychologist with 20+ years of human factors engineering and training concept development in defence (primarily US and UK).  He is a director and principal scientist at Trimetis, a Bristol-based research and consultancy business, as well as a lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.  He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.  His area of expertise is in the application of research in analysis, planning and decision making to improving cognitive work performance (through technology design and training).

Paddy Turner
Organisational Scientist at QinetiQ | pjturner1@qinetiq.com

Paddy is an organisational scientist who currently works for QinetiQ and has UK defence experience (over 20 years). He also used to work for Cranfield University at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham. Paddy's expertise is in the area of C2 analysis and experimentation, organisational design and performance improvement in planning/decision making.


  1. The authors take a broad definition of decision making as not being solely the bailiwick of Commanders, but includes leaders at all levels, and includes thinking in terms of judgments, analyses, assessments, and planning, as well as the Commander’s decision
  2. Neither “agility” or “agile” are used in JDP04 Understanding and Decision-making, the UK’s doctrine related to individual and team cognitive work. “Cognitive readiness”, “cognitive resilience” and “cognitive fitness” are used in terms of general thinking and decision making performance but not with respect to the implications of cognitive agility which appears to be used in the context of anticipation and response to surprise, the additional unexpected and emergent demands from VUCA environments. JCN2/17
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Darren_Good/publication/265963826_Cognitive_Agility_Adapting_to_Real-time_Decision_Making_at_Work/links/54219b4f0cf2a39f4af5a102.pdf
  4. See Hutton, Ward et al. (2017). Adaptive expertise.  https://vimeo.com/channels/1340086/252555551
  5. This has recently been offered to MOD as part of an ongoing Dstl project looking at cognitive agility.
  6. E.g. recognition of one’s own biases, rigidity, over- or under-confidence, fatigue, ‘blinkers’/perspective
  7. We recognise that people’s cognitive performance is heavily influenced by the technologies with which they are provided to support their thinking and decision making, and that cognitive agility is heavily influenced by team mates, and the organisational structure and constraints. Our current focus is on supporting the development of cognitive agility in individuals, assuming that the context will require adjustments to accommodate this in service of better performance in the VUCA context.
  8. rob.hutton@trimetis.co.uk
  9. pjturner@qinetiq.com

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