Monday, November 1, 2010

Situational Awareness

A small patrol was walking a town street in Iraq. Some people kept their distance, others shouted obscenities, and others approached to ask for help or shake hands. Typical day. Suddenly a young man (15-16, so a kid really) stands up from behind a parked car with his arm cocked. The members of the patrol have an instant to react. Does the young man have a rock? Or a grenade? Do you shot or don't you?

Thankfully I didn't encounter this situation. One of my friends did. The man had a grenade, and a young corporal took the shot while everyone else was still deciding. The grenade fell under the parked care and exploded. Only the young man was killed. Nobody else was hurt, unless you count the car (an old POS Toyota).

Also, thankfully, most leaders today don't face those decisions. Mostly they worry about P&L statements; the trouble making employee; or making next month's figures. But that doesn't mean that situational awareness isn't important.

Situational awareness is the knowledge of what is going on around you. A leader cannot be oblivious to his surroundings, his environment. In the Army, that can mean the difference between life and death. In the business world it can be the difference between pro-actively fixing a problem or reactively trying to salvage something from it.

So, how aware are you of your surroundings. Do you know what your team is working on? Do you have metrics in place? If you do have metrics, what are the expected boundaries for good performance? And how often do you check them?

In a previous blog I talked about making time to meet with your employees individually. That would be a time to gain some situational awareness. You gain understanding about your team.

Another example would be with the metrics I mentioned earlier. The PMBOK talks about how to gauge those metrics, and how corrective action can be taken before an item falls outside the proper limits. How do you know? If the results of your metric move in a particular direction 7 times, then you know you have a trend that needs to be addressed.

So, lets say that you lead a quality department, and you notice that a particular piece you manufacture is sliding on the Factory Acceptance Tests that are performed. It is still within the acceptable range, but 7 times in a row that model of equipment  is losing ground. Now would be the time to address the situation, because you are aware that it WILL BECOME a problem. You handle it before it IS a problem.

In essence that is what Situational Awareness is. Taking care of problems before they ARE problems. Sometimes it is in an instant, other times measured out through careful review of results. Either way it is about being one of the favorite words of leadership: PROACTIVE.

So, the real trick here is making sure you have the right metrics, and asking the right questions. Ahh... sounds like the potential for another blog entry. What do you think?

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