Situational awareness is more than just paying attention to what is going on around you, though that is an important start. It means both knowing what to look for, and how to assess (make decisions about) your surroundings.
The end goal for situational awareness is correct action. The bridge from simply paying attention to taking correct action is the OODA-Loop. OODA Loop is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The Loop aspect is that one should be constantly looping through OODA since situations and circumstances change constantly. Credit for the OODA Loop goes to military strategist John Boyd. More on the OODA Loop later in this article.
What is Situational Awareness?
Scott Stewart of Statfor.com defines situational awareness as "being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations." That is an okay definition as for as it goes, but is primarily limited to immediate (in both time and location), physical and external threats, and it doesn't talk about the end goal of correct action.
A better definition of situational awareness should incorporate the concept of "environmental scanning" from the business world (especially public relations). BusinessDictionary.com defines environmental scanning as "careful monitoring of an organization's internal and external environments for detecting early signs of opportunities and threats that may influence its current and future plans."
This definition looks for opportunities as well as threats. It expands the scope beyond the immediate, to include developing trends that may lead to future threats and opportunities. It includes not just danger from physical threats, but other threats (political, financial, etc.) as well. Finally, it adds the idea of not just looking at the external situation, but also the internal situation.
What is the OODA Loop?
|Original diagram by John Boyd. This graphic by Patrick Edwin Moran, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. |
As stated earlier, the OODA Loop is an acronym by
military strategist and Korean War veteran John Boyd. Presented above (click it for bigger image) is a flowchart of how OODA Loop works, and the following is a (simplistic) explanation of its main points:
Observe: Paying attention to the environment in which we are operating, noting potential threats and opportunities, in order to quickly gain the knowledge and understanding we need for decision making. Key concept: Observing should be continual, as our environment is constantly changing.
Orient: The orient phase is where you apply your mental models to what you observe, in order to arrive at your understanding of your situation. Mental models are the way we understand the world; the system by which we think. This is perhaps the most complex, and critical, part of the OODA Loop. According to Boyd, it is not the one with the most information that wins, but rather it is the one with the best understanding of the information they have that wins.
Economist Richard J. Maybury explains models this way: "As we go through life, we build these very complex pictures in our minds of how the world works, and we are constantly referring back to them - matching incoming data against our models. That's how we make sense of things."
Many things contribute to the models we use - our family influences, cultural heritage, religious beliefs, education, training, personal experiences, and so forth. The key to orienting our understanding is to develop many mental models and to constantly refine or improve those models in a process Boyd calls "destructive deduction" - the examining, tearing apart, and rebuilding of those models. This process leads to improving your judgement.
Decide - In the decision phase of the OODA Loop, you determine your best course of action based on your your judgement (using your mental models) of your observations. For example, you might decide to continue walking down the street because you observe no potential dangers. Or you may decide to cross over to the other side or even go back based on your judgement that the two thuggish-looking men eyeing you as you approach are potentially dangerous.
Act - In the action phase, you do something (take an action) based on the decision you made using your judgment of your observations. That action may be continuing to do what you were doing, or it mifght mean taking a new or different action.
This last phase of the OODA Loop is not the final phase (remember, the concept is OODA Loop, meaning you constantly loop through the phases). You may need to adjust your action based on changing circumstances. For example, when you cross the street to avoid those two thuggish-looking men, you may need to immediately take another action if they then cross the street, too, in order to intercept your path.
In order to emphasize the constant looping nature of the OODA Loop, Boyd would write "hypothesis" beside "Decision," and "test" beside "Act." Every decision is really your hypothesis of what is the best decision in a particular situation, and every action is really a test of that decision.
Situational awareness is an attitude - a mindset. It is something you need to consciously do on a continuous basis as you go about your normal day-to-day activities. Make it a habit.
Realize that you need to be aware of your surroundings everywhere you go. Don't let your guard down just because you are somewhere you feel safe. Bad things don't just happen in bad neighborhoods, but can happen in good neighborhoods as well.
Know what is "normal" for where you are and what's going on around you (knowing what is "normal" is a mental model). Pay close attention to anything that is outside the expected normal. Observe what is going own around you, and evaluate it against what you would expect to be happening (your models).
Part of observing is being able to actually see what is going own. Physically position yourself to be able to see what is happening around you. This means seating with your back to a wall rather than turning your back on the room. It means seating where you can observe doors and windows. It means parking in a well-light, highly visible spot. It means avoiding dark alleys.
Don't get so focused on something that you tune out everything else going on around you. This is sometimes called focus-lock. Avoid so locking your focus on your smart phone, a conversation, the attractive lady in a mini-skirt that just walked by, or anything else to the point you aren't paying attention to anything else.
Micro and Macro
There are two types of situational awareness - the micro and the macro. Both are should be practiced. Micro looks at your immediate surroundings (your neighborhood, your workplace, the store you're in, the people around you, the parking lot, the road you're driving on, and so forth). Macro looks at the bigger picture, such as local, regional, national and international events that may affect you in some way.
Micro: As you go about your day, maintain awareness of your physical surroundings. This is the people and activity where you are at the moment. Don't get so involved with your smart phone or anything else that you ignore what is going on around you. Stay aware of your immediate surroundings and any potential risks and threats. Are you parking in a highly visible, well-light location near the entrance to minimize chances of ambush & muggings?
Pay attention to the people around you and what they are doing. Is anyone acting suspicious or nervous? Is anyone loitering, or otherwise looks out-of-place? Are you making yourself a target by wearing expensive, flashy clothes & accessories, or driving an expensive car? Before getting out of a car or walking out of a building, do you look out a window first to identify possible dangers?
Macro: Stay informed of the news (local, national, global). Know your elected officials in Washington, and keep up with what they are doing. Especially pay attention to the flow of money - who are their donors?, who benefits from their efforts?, how are they spending your money? How will any pending legislation affect you? Same goes for your elected officials on the state and local level.
Know your community and how it works: Who are its local politicians, important bureaucrats, community leaders? What are the local power & water sources? How well do you know the roads in and around your community? (hint: you shouldn't need GPS or google maps to find your way around where you live without getting lost.) Do you know the "bad areas" of town to avoid? Pay close attention to economic and business news. How well is your company and industry doing? (Layoffs are never really a surprise to those paying close attention.) Do you know how safe & stable your bank and insurance companies are? Pay attention to their bottom lines and management shake-ups to avoid nasty surprises.
How Might It Affect Me?
When looking for future threats, ask yourself: How might it affect me?
For example, if you hear about a new shopping center to be built near your neighborhood, ask How will that new shopping center affect me? Answers might be positive - such as shorter shopping trips, more employment opportunities, and increased home value. And, the answers might be negative, such as more traffic, higher crime, or more pollution.
Think about how the actions of the local government, such as annexations and changes in zoning laws, might affect you.
Also, consider the how changing economic conditions in your area might affect you. A local factory closing and laying off 100s of people might affect you in many ways, even if you don't work there. Think through how the actions of others (government, businesses, people) might affect you.
Don't Forget the Internal
We mostly think of threats coming from outside, but often threats come from within ourselves. How is your health - physical and emotional? Are you gaining weight? Losing fitness? Developing health problems? Developing addictions or bad habits? Notice your eyesight getting worse? Are you maintaining your current job skills? Are you learning the new job skills you need? Are you sinking into credit card debt? When is the last time your went to the gun range? Are you as good a shot as you used to be? When is the last time you had a first aid refresher course? Situational awareness needs to include an honest appraisal of yourself.
Don't forget about your stuff. Be aware of any developing problems with your home or vehicle. Are you going to need a new roof anytime soon? Are the batteries in your smoke detector getting weak? Are your car's brakes starting to squeak?
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