Deconstructing Formations: Like an Amoeba

Great training internalizes principles & encourages feedback

By Robin Kipling  |   Mar 5, 2018

The ideal tactical formation is like an amoeba: a group of moving organisms possessing the ability to alter its shape, assimilate and adapt to it’s ever changing environment; a single, flexible formation, as opposed to a series of different formations for every new situation.

This is doable, trainable, and much easier than you think. An amoeba-type formation is achieved by each member of the formation possessing a thorough understanding of the operating principles and possessing the ability to effectively communicate with each other—while maintaining the integrity and objective of the formation itself.

Basic Principles

Principles are the foundation from which all our tactics are built. If you consider our operating tactics as the branches of a tree, then the principles would be the trunk. Any prudent operator or trainer will question and challenge the principles of their own system, and, when they do, they will learn that although the language, terminology, and tactics may vary slightly, it’s all pretty much variations along themes.

Principles such as John Boyd’s OODA Loop or Charles Remsberg’s Thought Process have given us a measuring stick in which to quickly evaluate our tactics for effectiveness.

Sound principles give our tactics an anchor point to ask the frank questions. In the case of the OODA Loop, we might ask will this tactic allow us to observe, orient, decide, or act better and faster than our adversary? If the answer is yes, the tactic is sound, if the answer is no—don’t do it. Quick, sound decisions are made, and we move on.   

But we must train on our tactics in advance to achieve unconscious competence. Most trainers will tell you that this is no small task. But they will further agree the way to accomplish it is through mass repetitions. When tactical dilemmas present themselves, we can rely on our principles to guide us to tactically sound solutions quickly and proceed.


The second essential component of an effective formation is effective communication with our counterparts. One way to do this is the key off: this simply means that your next tactical movement is dictated by the team member in front of or around you. This can be done verbally (announcing), non-verbally (squeezing up), or visually.   

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the key off is that it is a built-in corrector. If a team member makes a poor decision—and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge this does happen—the key off acts as a control measure to correct the error and continue with the objective.

By constantly keying off our team members, we maintain a constant state of communication with each other, thus maintaining the integrity of the formation and staying focused on the overall objective.

Resist Rigidity

Rigid formations don’t allow for this sort of feedback. An inflexible branch is easily snapped. There’s no question that a file formation, or any formation for that matter, may be optimal for some situations but not good for others. A five-member tethered or diamond formation, for example, look great on a chalkboard for specific situations. But when the situation, mission, or objective changes without warning and with no time to plan, the greatest chance for success arises from the simplest, most flexible and principally sound formation that can be learned quickly, trained effectively, and applied most widely.

It isn’t practical to expect human beings, with limited training, operating in life-threatening situations to be able access a different formation every time the situation changes—especially when you consider the limitations in training time most of us experience.

Wouldn’t learning one malleable formation be better?

The focus of our formation needs to be principally based. Each member of that formation must have a sound understanding of its governing principles to mitigate as many foreseeable issues in training as possible. When unforeseeable problems emerge in operation, those members will be equipped to apply those principles and find tactically sound solutions on the fly.

Likewise, when moving as a formation, each member of the principally proficient group will be constantly evaluating the environment, weighing the tactical advantages and disadvantages of their position, and move and adjust to enhance their effectiveness. Their teammates will do the same while keeping in constant contact with—keying off—their teammates.

Training for the Amoeba

Training begins at a crawl by assuming a basic formation, such as a file formation and moving through an environment. The trainer will stop the formation and freeze-frame before every action and ask each member what their next movement, positioning, and priority should be. Ensure that they are drawing on your principles to make those decisions.

This part requires patience as the students begin to solve their own problems, while internalizing the principles and adapting them to changing situations. The tempo increases faster than you think and before you know it you’ll be having to reign them in.

A formation may begin as a file, stack or column. When the formation begins moving through an environment the space may begin to open-up, as in the widening of a hallway, for example. The team may no longer feel that a straight line is the most optimal way to achieve its tactical objectives, so the second person in the formation begins to fan out of the file to gain a better vantage point on his areas of responsibility. The third man in the formation keys off his movement and does the same.

The formation doesn’t look like a file formation anymore, but it’s much more effective.

If the situation changes, such as an imminent threat to life, for example, the formation morphs into the most optimal shape given the environment, to move directly to the threat without changing or altering its tactics, principles or mind-set.

Does everything need to change? Do we throw all principles out the window?

Absolutely not.

All that needs to change is that we must adjust our areas of responsibility. In this case, we are now passing areas without clearing them so each operator has to adjust his area of responsibility and rear security has to be addressed.

Yes. It’s that simple.

This approach and mindset can be used for any situation.


Training is greatly enhanced once the principles are internalized. They must only be adapted to the changing tactical objectives, as opposed to assuming a different formation for every situation. Members learn one formation. More accurately, what they learn is a mindset. They drill to possess the skills and understanding to morph effectively to every situation and changing environment. The training focus becomes one of mindset, threat recognition, and understanding of principles—not chalkboard debates.

The result is a moving, shape altering mass of tactically and principally sound organisms, each communicating verbally and non-verbally with each other, making tactically and principally sound decisions in harmony with their mission and environment.

Kind of like an amoeba.