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Situational Awareness, often called SA, is the ability of a person to become clearly aware of his or her surroundings, to determine what is normal and then quickly anticipate and correct for future changes before they happen. Much has been written and discussed during the past 15 years about SA training and implementation in fields like aviation, security, defense and safety, but this concept has yet to become widely used in the business world.

Ace combat pilots, front-line military personnel, police in hostage situations, firemen in burning buildings and Coast Guard officers during drug interdiction are all using Situational Awareness. They have learned to calmly observe a situation from all angles, consider only relevant data, recognize their actual environment and react accordingly. Skilled users of SA learn to understand the true intentions of others, process information in real time, anticipate unusual future events, take corrective action (and possibly adjust), before it is too late. It becomes second nature to think ahead; they know their well-being depends on it.

Business executives already use some elements of Situational Awareness. CEOs may intuitively utilize many SA precepts, but they are often limited, without realizing it, in the relevant information which is required. That can be a serious problem. In this age of huge amounts of digitized data, it is unfortunate that not all necessary information gets to the top. We have huge amounts of quantitative data in our computer systems, but much of the qualitative essence that can aid decisions doesnt get through.

The fact is that subordinates do not always tell their top managers what is really going on. They may be afraid to report bad news or a potentially negative event or trend – particularly if it has occurred on their watch. They may fear that some less-than-attractive information could be used against them. They may also feel that some details are too insignificant or possibly embarrassing for a CEO to know. And some workers may just want to avoid controversy. As a result, it might be difficult for an executive to use full Situational Awareness techniques because he or she does not have an accurate picture of the decision-making environment.

Management by Walking Around has been a popular concept for years. By doing it, top managers are supposed to learn what is really going on. Theres certainly nothing wrong with getting around and seeing things with ones own eyes, but that doesnt go far enough. To get a complete picture, a manager needs to insist upon honest feedback from all levels of employees, customers and suppliers. That means meeting with them face to face and taking enough time to achieve mutual trust and respect. Having achieved such a bond, nothing should be allowed to break it. There can be no reprisals for honest, sincerely given information, some of which may have been entrusted in confidence.

Once this trust hurdle has been overcome, the rest of the Situational Awareness concept can be adopted by the business world. Top executives will need only to add the principles that SA decision makers in other critical industries have understood and practiced for years.

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