Situational Awareness The Sniper Mind

Competent decision making is a complex process. Complex situations with many rapidly evolving variables and a high degree of fluidity require the application of competencies that themselves are the result of the successful balancing of cognitive, psychological and emotional traits and attributes.

The twelve cognitive competencies that are used by successful business people, athletes and elite combatants can themselves be further broken down into skills that can be acquired, developed and subsequently fine-tuned.

Situational awareness is one of these. It is fitting to kick-start the detailed breakdown of what I have come to recognize as The Sniper Mind skillset with it because it is arguably one of the easiest to develop and, most probably, one of the most misunderstood.

Because of the word “situational” most people think that it is enough to take into account the environment, the limiting and enabling factors that are at play, the overall situation, the conditions created by leadership performance and the aims that guide strategy and tactics. That, however, is not even the beginning.

The foundation of situational assessment begins with the personal awareness of your capabilities in a particular situation. This requires self-knowledge, self-awareness and a solid bedrock of beliefs and values that enable you to maintain control over your emotions.

Former Navy SEAL, Errol Doebler, who’s latest book on leadership has just come out at the time of writing this post, nails it when he talks about how emotions control everything and if you are unaware of yours you are never in control of yourself.

When you’re not in control of yourself you cannot be in control of any situation. Situational awareness then, truly begins with yourself. This is the only way you can truly understand your own motivation to do things, can divine where your particular strengths and weaknesses lie and then decide just what you are willing to sacrifice in order to attain your goals.

This is the so-called “red lines” which mark the boundaries of your values.

Neuroscience considers situational awareness as a key aspect of net-centric warfare. Net-centric warfare “is a military doctrine or theory of war that seeks to translate an information advantage, enabled in part by information technology, into a competitive advantage through the robust computer networking of well informed geographically dispersed forces.”

Neuroscientific studies have shown that situational awareness creates distinctive decision-spikes in the brain at appropriate points when complex situations require the processing of information and choices that lead to actions.

Information then, data, is important but only if you can use it properly and for that to happen you need to be able to understand who you are, what you do and why you do it and then use that knowledge to establish your goals and devise a strategy that will lead you there. The tactics you employ are the steps that implement your strategy.

How To Develop Better Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is, as shown by the diagram below, itself generated through specific actions and attributes:

  1. The collection of facts and data.
  2. The filtering of what we know and what we see through what we believe and what we value. This allows us to set priorities that command our attention and also define the general direction we are heading towards in particular contexts. That direction determines the outcomes we seek.
  3. The formulation of a specific strategy that will lead us to our goals and desirable outcome, which will generate actionable steps that will be our tactics.

Situational Awareness and the elements that constitute it

The real question here is how do we improve in our situational awareness capability? Especially if we happen to be poor at it in the first instance and are not aware of the fact?

To help us here we employ the tactics developed by U.S. military strategist and fighter pilot John Boyd that are presented by the handy acronym OODA.

OODA stand for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It’s a four-step process designed to help us make difficult decisions, quickly by taking into account context and using all available information. It’s no accident that John Boyd developed it to use in aerial combat situations. The extreme fluidity of that environment is reflected in the fact that this is not a one-off process but a continuous one where after each decision the process starts yet again, which is why it is called the OODA loop.

The OODA loop represents the way we handle data: during the observation phase we quickly gather the raw data we need in order to make a decision. We then Orient the data that has been collected by processing it, acquiring insights, making predictions, understanding timeline trajectories and evaluating context. The Decide phase of the OODA loop is where the decision is made to commit to a particular course of action with the view to obtain a specific, desirable outcome. Finally the Act phase is the execution.

John Boyd was particular in mentioning that in any volatile situation while we should act with confidence and the conviction that comes from applying the process, the decision was usually no more than a hypothesis. The action we embark upon is the testing phase for that hypothesis which will generate more raw data that will need to be observed and the loop immediately starts again.

If you find the OODA loop too much to begin with in your development of better situational awareness Jason Bourne style (see the vid below) then there are some steps you can take to ease into it.

  1. Be observant – identify objects around you as you go about your day to day life.
  2. Ask questions – ask yourself why something is where it is. Why did someone do what they did? A lot of situational awareness scenarios require you to employ empathy to better understand context and this is a great way to develop it.
  3. Assess context – not everything is the same. A bang heard in a fireworks party is different in meaning to a bang heard in the middle of the night in a quiet neighborhood. Learning to ascribe specific value to specific instances is a great way to better understand how context changes facts.
  4. Feel good about yourself – fear is a true mind killer. It creates a physical response in the body that results in endocrinological changes that affect the brain’s ability to function correctly under pressure. Accept that uncertainty is a given that fluidity in any situation is only another challenge to be met and focus on your own ability to handle this.

You can be active in marketing, sales, management or just be a student struggling with exams and trying to find your place in life. Good situational awareness skills will allow you to make better use of every circumstance that arises, learn faster from it and make better decisions. That in itself is a massive win regardless of who you are and what you do.

More in this series:


Go Deeper: 

Intentional book by David Amerland The Sniper Mind by David Amerland
Take Control Of Your Actions.    Make Better Decisions.