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Cognitive Agility & The Thinking Approach Space

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Executive Summary

In June 2019 The Wavell Room published our article introducing the concept of cognitive agility.  We presented the paper as a banner around which to focus efforts to improve defence’s intellectual edge in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) operating environment.  We discussed cognitive agility in the context of making ‘better’ decisions and the skills that support improved performance.  We asked readers to think about how cognitive agility is specifically targeted in defence education and training.

This article is a follow up and proposes a conceptual model for thinking about cognitive agility, called the Thinking Approach Space.  This paper first presents the model and then looks at how it might differ from critical thinking and other military decision-making concepts.   

Background

In our previous Wavell Room article we introduced the term cognitive agility.  We argued that although the idea resonates with most of those involved in the profession of arms the term lacked a clear definition.  This was especially with respect to education and training.  This paper provides a more tangible description based on concepts derived from existing doctrine for command and control and for decision making, as well as being grounded in findings from the psychological literature.  The revised description is based on the conceptual model provided by the Thinking Approach Space which this article explores.1

The Thinking Approach Space

The purpose of the Thinking Approach Space model is to provide a framework for characterising cognitive agility to support approaches to performance improvement.  The Thinking Approach Space represents several different ‘modes’ of thinking that support various objectives (assessing, sensemaking, planning, decision-making) and must operate under various constraints (time pressure, complexity, requirements to work with other organisations  etc).

To align with current MOD doctrine and concepts, we have used two primary references: Joint Doctrine Publication 04 (Understanding and Decision Making) provides a conceptual framework for thinking and Joint Concept Note 2/17 (Future of Command and Control) the NATO C2 approach model that underpins the definition of agile C2.

The JDP 04 conceptual framework for thinking describes two dimensions of thought.  The first dimension describes means in terms of a dimension from unconscious (intuitive, creative) to conscious (deliberate, rational).  The second  dimension describes the ways in terms of a dimension with degrees of convergent thinking (concluding and deciding) and divergent thinking (exploring and constructing).  The NATO C2 approach model provides a three-dimensional space describing the extent of information availability (no information to broadly available information), degree of decision control (centralised to decentralised) and level of collaboration (tightly constrained to one individual to unconstrained/a collective effort).  Approaches to C2 can be defined as regions within this space and C2 agility is defined as the ability to move between these approaches.

Blending Models

The Thinking Approach Space is a blend of these two models.  It is not intended to be a psychological model of decision-making but, instead, offers a metaphor for thinking about cognitive agility.  The Thinking Approach Space mimics the JDP 04 conceptual framework with the addition of an “Actor/s” dimension which is the extent to which decisions are made individually or in a collective/collaborative context.2

Different regions of this space correspond to alternative ‘modes’ of thinking.  Further, cognitive agility, like C2 agility, is defined in terms of the ability of the decision maker(s) to ‘move’ effectively and appropriately throughout the Thinking Approach Space.  Cognitive agility is the adaptation of thinking modes in response to or anticipation of the dynamic decision-making problem and the various situational factors (opportunities or constraints) which impact effective decision-making.  The Thinking Approach Space (TAS) is represented in Figure 1.

In psychological science, few concepts relating to thinking are described as discrete or separable aspects of mental activity.  The three axes of Actor/s, Conscious Effort, and Expansiveness most likely vary by degree but provide separable dimensions.  Therefore, to think about discrete regions of the space and distinct thinking modes is unlikely to reflect the reality of thought and mental activity.  However, it provides an interesting exercise with respect to understanding different approaches to thinking.

Noting that the Thinking Approach Space is a metaphor it provides us with a way to “think about thinking”.  For example, consider the Analytical, Divergent, Individual mode of thinking (Figure 2).  This mode correlates with activities that, in common language, might be referred to as an individual’s conscious (analytical), creative or ‘out of the box’ (divergent) thinking.  It might include the application of recognised techniques such as individual brainstorming or De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats for example.  A representative defence example might be a tactical decision-making context where a Platoon Leader faces a novel situation and has time to explore several alternative courses of action in deliberate (analytical) and divergent way in order to come up with a creative or new (not previously experienced) solution to a tactical problem.

In the psychological literature, this example maps onto research into creative thinking techniques that one might use on one’s own where time and information are available.  With respect to associated skills, knowledge, and competences, there may be skills and/or techniques that could be taught to improve individual creative thinking.

Alternatively, there may be regions of the Thinking Approach Space that are less well understood from a psychological/cognitive and an education/training perspective.  For example, what does it mean to be operating in a Collaborative, ‘Intuitive’, Divergent mode?  This might be represented by a group of people (e.g. Staff) with time and information to support divergent thinking (Divergent) based on their experience or implicit learning (i.e. representing their ‘Intuition’)?  This could be akin to implicit creativity to identify alternatives (assessments, explanations or courses of action) in a group context.

This mode of thinking might be required in complex scenarios where there are multiple actors requiring collaborative working; where they are early in the thinking process with time available and therefore have time to produce divergent alternatives; or where there is little consensus because there is little shared experience on which to base assessments.  A defence example might include a higher level command group (collective), with time to solve a novel problem through divergent exploration of alternative assessments and potential solutions.  The ‘intuitive’ part reflects the application of many years of operational experience, but maybe not experience in this particular problem (for example, how to manage an Ebola outbreak and what defence can do to work with the Public Health services to develop and support the required plans).

Utility of the Thinking Approach Space Concept

Challenges to the Thinking Approach Space do not necessarily negate its usefulness.  They could provide avenues for further psychological research and examination.  They could also describe a particular situational constraint (or constraints) on thinking which mean that certain areas are less meaningful.  In the same vein, with the NATO agile C2 framework, some regions of the C2 Approach Space are less meaningful than others. This is illustrated in JCN 2/17 where there are C2 approaches that appear only on the leading diagonal, yet the C2 approach space is a useful model for thinking about C2 agility.  To reiterate our previous statements, the purpose of the Thinking Approach Space is to provide a useful metaphor, not a validated scientific model.

Implications

Cognitive agility relates directly to the ability to move around the Think Approach Space effectively and appropriately to meet objectives within situational constraints.  Implications for training and education include the requirement to support the skills and knowledge development for the various thinking modes as well as the required skills to move from one mode to another.  Knowing when and how to move between the different thinking modes requires metacognitive skills/awareness.

Metacognition includes self-awareness (knowing one’s own strengths and limitations), and self-regulation (“am I achieving the objective of the activity?”) as well as awareness and understanding of other actors involved in the decision-making process.

Based on the concept of the Thinking Approach Space, we offer revised descriptions to support capability development:

  • Cognitive agility is the ability/capacity to implement the alternative modes of thinking and to recognise the need to change in the context of the current and/or anticipated situation and current resources (concerning time, information and expertise).
  • (Applied) Metacognition is the understanding of where you are in the Thinking Approach Space, whether the ‘mode’ is appropriate to the resources and situation, and an understanding of the need to change. It provides reflective, critical, and regulatory capacity which supports cognitive agility across the TAS.

Conclusion

The Think Approach Space has been provided as a straw man to support the cognitive agility concept and therefore requires validation against existing psychological science for validity.  It also needs to be evaluated against the requirement that it supports training and development and therefore has utility.  Both evaluations have yet to be conducted.

However, if the Thinking Approach Space model gets you thinking about the nature of cognitive agility, and about the challenges for training, education, and experiential learning to develop better thinkers, better decision makers, and more capable organisations, then the model will have served a purpose.

We would be happy to receive feedback on this concept, particularly if you have concrete examples of techniques for thinking in the various different modes.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following for their review and helpful comments on previous drafts: Dr Pam Richards (University of Central Lancashire, Institute of Coaching & Performance) and Major Katie Yardley (Learning Development Advisor, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom).


Cover photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

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.

Martin Jones

Martin Jones: Martin is a principal psychologist in the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. Martin has a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Loughborough University and is an HCPC registered practitioner psychologist. Before joining DSTL, Martin spent ten years as a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Gloucestershire and the University of Exeter. Martin’s research is focussed on examining the individual differences and person-situation interactions involved in coping with aversive experiences (i.e., pain and fatigue).

Footnotes

  1. Turner, P., Hutton, R., & Jones, M. (in preparation). Education & Training Implications for Cognitive Agility and the Thinking Approach Space. The third article in the Cognitive Agility trilogy.
  2. Note, in addition, we refer to the JDP04 Conscious/Unconscious dimension in terms of Daniel Kahneman’s terminology and use Analytical/Intuitive (from Kahenman’s 2011 book ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’)

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