The Concentric Circles of Awareness - Which Zone are You In?

Jeff Cole

Stressed businessman
In 1970, when Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, he defined it roughly as "too much change in too little time". 45 years later we certainly have no shortage of changes hitting us daily. You go to look at the morning news on the flat, rectangular device of your choice only to get sprayed in the face with a cyber-blast of 0s and 1s that, when translated, equate to changes large and small. Nice.
Interesting things happen mentally when you totally expect one thing and another happens. You expect A. Instead, B occurs. Too much of that at once and you start escalating up a scale of dysfunctional behavior. Expectations are shattered, and parts of your brain, normally silent, start lighting up like a pinball machine. Once one breaches their threshold for assimilating change, they start exhibiting disproportionate responses – you might see this at airport ticket counters, department store return counters, computer help lines, etc. People aren’t really following the Amy Vanderbilt playbook at that point.
With the hectic holiday season upon us, let’s look at one tactic that greatly helps in managing change and keeping stress levels in low gear. The one secret you can start applying immediately comes, oddly enough, from mountain biking. It’s called "looking beyond the corner". Others call is "seeing beyond your headlights," "playing 3 moves ahead" or "what-if planning".
A great way to die in mountain biking is to only look 3 feet ahead of you at all times. This means you are always reacting rapidly to the changing terrain – quite a stressful situation. Looking beyond the corner means raising your horizon – knowing and anticipating what is coming in advance – thus giving you ample reaction time to get ready and adjust.
I liken this to a series of concentric circles of awareness. We’ll use the airport as an example:
  • The smallest circle of awareness in the center is the "white zone" - people showing little if any situational awareness or fore planning. Their minds are elsewhere. If their flight cancels they have no idea what to do.
  • The next largest circle is the "yellow zone" – people looking just beyond their headlights – they are aware that their expectations may get shattered and maybe have a rough idea what to do. If something happens, they have one or two things they can try.
  • The largest outer circle is what I call the "red zone" - people looking well beyond the next corner – they not only understand their expectations may get shattered, they have considered (ahead of time) how that might happen, and what their countermeasures might be. They don’t wait for something to happen – they look at leading indicators and in some cases can act in advance of a failure. If they are caught by surprise, they can react faster (and possibly better) than the yellow zone thinkers. While yellow and white zones are more reactive, the red zone is proactive. Their flight cancels? They already have plans A, B, C, and D if needed.
A bad approach one can take in any change is to adopt a "victim mentality" and assume they have zero ownership – that others own getting them through the change – whatever that change may be. Red zone thinkers understand that while they may not control the change, they do control their reaction to that change. Because they proactively think through different possibilities that lie around the corner, they also take some responsibility for not being surprised when it happens. In methods like Lean Six Sigma, tools such as FMEA and scenario-based analyses are used to help instill this red zone thinking. Likely, we are all in different zones at different times. Red zone thinking can be exhausting at times, and you might save that for the more important situations in life.
So, which zone are you in? Time to apply some of that red zone thinking to your upcoming holiday meal with the in-laws!
Happy planning!