Situational awareness and growing your flexibility muscle
Aristotle had a lot to say about our moral development, but it turns out he also talked a good deal about something called situational luck. For Aristotle, all our habits — good or bad, learnt or not — contribute to our moral development.
The sum of those habits can help to explain how one child develops in ways that encourage stealing or some other vice, while another develops into a virtuous and charitable person.
Our natural tendencies affect our moral development, but so do external influences such as education, role models and other opportunities that come from family or community. These influences are the product of what Aristotle called developmental luck: maybe we have wonderful family and community influences that mould our natural tendencies in ways that encourage virtue, or maybe we don’t.
What’s really interesting about Aristotle’s account of developmental luck is that he also accounts for the influence of crises — and here’s where situational luck comes into play: those moments that require us to choose, immediately, between more and less virtuous alternatives.
At the heart of situational luck is situational awareness. Bad things happen; dangerous situations abound. But becoming situationally aware allows you to quickly recognise threats and either avoid them entirely or make smart decisions in real time about how to proceed in order to maximise good outcomes.
Granted, situational awareness should not be thought of only as a means of avoiding danger. It’s also at the heart of noticing positive and potentially life-shaping or even life-changing opportunities.
At the heart of situational awareness is flexibility. Training to be more flexible and responsive is different from training to repeat the same behaviours no matter what the circumstances. The former is about careful assessment and decision-making — even if it feels more like habit when it’s happening — while the latter is about unthinking habit or complacency, falling back on responses that have worked for us in the past regardless of whether or not they apply to the present.
The best we can do is see to it that our deepest inclinations are aligned with a capacity for flexibility so that we can be responsive to whatever situation we find ourselves in. When it comes to developing situational awareness, the real challenge is that it’s not easy to go against an inclination to take the path of least resistance.
Sometimes when we do what’s most comfortable, we are putting ourselves at risk instead of avoiding risk. Think about all the people caught and injured in stampedes running for the closest and most obvious exit during a fire or threat.
The more information we can process, the more informed our decisions are or can become. Of course, there’s a limit to how much we can do. Imagine yourself sitting in a restaurant. As a situationally aware person, you probably want your back against the wall. You want to know where the exits are. And yes, if a funny-looking fellow comes in the front door carrying a large duffel bag, you might want to pay a bit more attention.
The important thing is to make a determination about how much information we need to take in and how we should prioritise that information to maximise our awareness. The secret is to balance the greatest amount of visual information with a minimum amount of exposure.
Training of any kind is about creating some hard wires within us that we can rely on to serve us well in the future. What situational awareness asks of us, what it needs to develop and grow, is that we train ourselves to make the best decisions we can with the information we have, as quickly as we can.
Situational awareness is key to personal protection; it’s also the key to business in an increasingly fast-paced market insofar as it makes smart speedy decision-making possible. To be as flexible as possible in our thoughts and actions, we have to be able to update and revise our awareness regularly.
Air force military strategist John Boyd developed a process known as the OODA loop. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The basic idea behind the OODA loop is that we can face situational threats, even overcome them, with well-practised agility. Though it got its start as a military tactic, the loop has been translated into business environments to encourage our ability to make complex decisions with greater and greater rapidity. That process involves collecting data, turning it into insight, and acting on it — in a constant loop.
Observe. Gather your data. Get as much accurate information, or feedback, as is realistic or necessary so that you have the correct information from which to learn.
Orient. Analyse and assess the information or the relation between actions and results. Set aside your prejudices, shift your perception, and try to attend to the evidence that’s in front of you.
Decide. Clarify the options and predict the impact of each decision.
Act. Implement a decision with confidence, but stay open to new information and input.
Think of the OODA loop as a way of focusing your attention in an ever-changing environment. The OODA loop opens up possibilities for you to act. It actually gives you the opportunity to consider more options than you might otherwise. The more you practise using it, the better — and faster — you’ll get.
Situational awareness begins with noticing and assessing your environment. The faster you can take in and evaluate data, the more likely you are to make decisions that increase your chances of a good outcome.
Unlocking your capacity for situational awareness takes practice predicting outcomes: you filter out what’s unnecessary so that you can focus in on what demands your attention. Whether in terms of personal safety or in terms of finding solutions to business problems, situational awareness is about becoming more flexible, more agile, more capable of responding cleverly in the face of rapid change.