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  • Writer's pictureKrzysztof 'Chris' Daniel

Situational Awareness Explored

Many people seem to be interested in gaining situational awareness only because they do not like feeling clueless.

And that's definitely NOT the way it should be.

Feeling clueless

Feeling clueless is a rather unpleasant emotional state.

It implies that your actions remind Brownian motions rather than intentional efforts. Nobody, including you, knows what to expect and what will be the final result.

Objectively, this is not a bad thing. There are life & business situations where you not only do not know, but you cannot know what should you do next. Random exploration is sometimes the only viable strategy.

Moving in a random direction each time can create interesting patterns but that is not a sign of high situational awareness. Animation by Toshiyouri - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Coincidentally, happy people exploring uncharted territories behave exactly like that, but they call it differently. They call it play or experimentation.

There are two substantial differences between those two groups of people.

  • explorers are in a much better emotional place explorer

  • explorers will accept outcomes more easily.

Emotional Management

One of the biggest discoveries during my #strategy adventure was when I understood the impact of emotional state on decision-making.

Daniel Kahneman in his "Thinking fast and slow" identified two thinking systems:

  • a fast and automatic one (almost reflex-based)

  • slow & logical

However, that should be barely an entry into the space, because it turns out the reflex-based thinking system (which I conflate with the lizard brain) is capable of turning off the slow & logical brain under certain conditions - like high stress.

More than that. Our logical brain has a tendency to replace facts with judgements and emotions. If this process is not conscious (and very often it is not), you may find yourself aiming to get a particular outcome (f.e. profit) but optimising for something completely different (like trying to avoid being accused of taking too much risk). Which naturally leads to unexpected consequences and a perceived lack of situational awareness.

Emotional management is a foundation of high situational awareness.

I truly recommend this podcast for all of you who would like to learn more about emotional management.

Outcome Expectation

The second difference between clueless people and explorers is expectations. Explorers hope to find new things but they know chances are rather slim. People with low situational awareness want to achieve the goals of their choice, but do not know how. And since they cannot accept this state, they create some plans.

The exploration plan and the goal-getting plan look very similar but there is one stark difference - the response to unanticipated developments.

Explorers pivot because a journey is still a journey. People with low situational awareness cannot pivot that easily because it is not about the journey but about goals.


The quality of situational awareness can be measured by the impact of surprising events on you or on your company.

Note the consequences - you can still be successful with low situational awareness if you are lucky.

You can still be not very successful with high situational awareness if you have bad luck.

The big assumption here is that if you have high situational awareness, you will make fewer mistakes and use your resources better.

That looks true for closed domains. If you are a doctor or a pilot, being surprised is always a bad thing but that might be due to the domain specificity - deviations in those are generally bad.

Generals and business leaders face slightly different situations - their domains include negative and positive surprises. And both domains created a concept of experimentation (which in the military is called recognition by fight).

That reasoning leads us to a point where situational awareness is about properly balancing acquiring information through observation and acting so that you get the results you want.

Frankly, it all looks dangerously close to Cynefin - the more you know about a particular space, the more you focus on making an impact and the less on sensing.

Red annotations show how preferred action mode changes according to what we know about the domain. Original image:

Model Errors - where situational awareness breaks - and meta-situational awareness appears

And when you think everything falls together in nice and coherent thinking, the infamous N.N. Taleb appears and brings long tails with him. Love him or hate him, he has a point - all models have boundary conditions and the reality breaks those more often than we are willing to admit.

This means that even achieving mastery in balancing learning through observation (research, data) and interaction (experimentation, interventions) promises you some royal mistakes.

More than that. Because the world changes, the point of balance is not stable, either. Your knowledge about the world ages, sometimes really fast, and what used to work may stop working in the near future.

Let's do a small summary here:

  • messed emotional space -> messed situational awareness

  • action is the ultimate learning mechanism. To preserve resources, you can use passive observation and research, in some circumstances.

  • everything you had learnt so far, even if you got a perfect mental model, will timeout. So you need to constantly test your knowledge and be ready to abandon everything you have got.

... and we ended in stoicism. Yes, this is where situational awareness ends for me. In philosophy.

Unexpected plot twist

So, it turns out situational awareness is rather a tool of self-assurance than an objective measurement, because even if we do everything by the book, things which we have not taken into the account can wipe all of our efforts.

Some people claim high situational awareness allows you to get a little more predictable outcomes. That looks true.

Another approach to situational awareness might be around resource conservation - instead of choosing a few energy-intensive actions, you can rely on passive observations where possible and bet better in terms of where to apply your efforts.

So, if you take all the things together, you get a pretty funny image - situational awareness is a social concept that helps to conserve resources without taking (too many) known and unknown risks.

In that light, high situational awareness is a code for "I know more about the situation than any of you" and low situational awareness means "I do not know a lot but will still take risks".

So, the ultimate objective of learning #wardleymapping might be to drive the construction of stories that nobody can object to.

I think I need to find a new hobby.

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