Situational Awareness for better process change

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Jeff Cole

Ever been to an airport scrambling to get to your next flight? Nothing better than coming up behind that oblivious family slowly walking four abreast down the middle of the hallway blocking everyone. While they are enamored with their own conversation, I’m not sure they have any idea where they are. You dodge around them, pass that teenaged girl dressed in her pyjamas, pivot around the man who decides to stop suddenly in the middle of the hall and make it to your gate. There you do a slow burn behind the person who waited until they were at the scanning station to take out their phone, turn it on, find their ticket and scan it. Once you are in your aisle seat, you proceed to be beaten about the head and shoulders by idiots wearing large backpacks who don’t realize that when they turn they are racking up more TKOs than Evander Holyfield. The joys of travel.

Airports are one of many places you can witness an epidemic that worsens every day – a severe lack of situational awareness (SA). What is this phenomenon, how can it impact us and our change efforts and what can we do to lessen that impact?

What is it? As the phrase implies, SA is a person having a clear sense of the situation and surroundings in which they find themselves. Then, hopefully, their behavior adjusts accordingly for that situation. They can judge the cause/effect implications of their actions on themselves and others.

Am I immune? Absolutely not! Being super situationally aware drains your mental batteries fast. Every one of us at one time or another has likely fallen prey to letting our mind wander in a situation where it probably shouldn’t have wandered. At certain times, we need to be very aware – conducting brain surgery, landing a plane, close quarters combat on a SWAT team, etc. At other times you can set that SA dial closer to zero – like eating chips on your couch.

What is the impact? Ever been hit with a surprise change at work and said 'Should have seen that coming'? People who are not situationally aware are much more prone to being surprised by changes. Then it takes them longer to respond and often they have a tougher time responding. That equates not only to personal stress but lower productivity for the organization until all the dust settles and people adapt to the change.
So what? If you are orchestrating a large process change, you’ll want to start with an assumption that some percentage (maybe a large %) of your audience is so focused on surviving daily life at the office they may not be paying attention to your change like you’d hope. You’ll want to find ways to help them with that. Also, if you are a leader of a group and you are hit by a change yourself, you need to be able to personally bounce back from that change quickly in order to lead others through the change.

What can we do? A really great way to die while mountain biking is to just look at your front tire. You will be constantly reacting to changes in your terrain. Bikers learn to “raise their horizon” – to look out at the next curve coming ahead, giving them ample time to proactively be ready and respond gracefully. We all need to do that as well – heads on a swivel. Proactively scan your environment for coming changes, opportunities and threats to which you’ll need to react. You’re already doing this (hopefully) on the highway – you may call it defensive driving. Take that into the office as well.

On a personal level, improving your SA is easy and can be fun - whenever you walk into a room – note where the exits are. Next time you go into a fast food restaurant – how many people are in there? What is the color and brand of the car in front of you at the stop light? What color is the carpet in your conference room? Occasionally throughout the day just remembering to be situationally aware will help build the habit. You can also build it into your weekly meeting agenda – what changes or opportunities do we see coming our way over the next week / month, etc.?

If you are driving an upcoming process change, start communicating early with your target audience – communicate multiple times and in multiple ways. Let them know what is coming so they too can be proactive in getting ready.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve become aware that my situation would be drastically improved via consumption of a cool beverage in a friendly pub… Happy change!