Decision Making Under Fire: How’s Your Situational Awareness?


Have you ever noticed how some people handle stressful decision making with remarkable composure? While it could be great acting (fake it until you make it, right?), calm, effective decision making is more often evidence of a high Situational AwarenessSM of the immediate environment and the ways in which that decision will impact complex systems. In short, Situational Awareness (SA) is knowing exactly who you are, where you are, where you are going and how you will get there, all within the context of the three-dimensional, rapidly changing environment in which you operate in.

This is the standard operating environment for elite military teams in training and combat, requiring unified action in mere seconds. In these kinds of situations, whether in the cockpit or in the office, people rarely conduct evaluations that objectively evaluate all factors. They may think they are looking at all the data, but their biases get in the way. Experienced decision makers appear to have little difficulty in choosing between options, but their real challenge is completely understanding the complexities of the situation before determining their options.

So how is effective decision making under fire possible? By improving your team’s collective SA through individual contributions of knowledge, experience and understanding of the environment. This SA is the key to making good decisions under pressure and involves three phases:


What it is

Perception is the sum total of all relevant information from your environment. It requires you to ask “What information is mission-critical?”

Why it’s important

Whether you’re in a cockpit or behind a desk, information overload is a very real threat. Advanced technology places millions of data points at your fingertips, but it’s the consequential relationship between these data points and uncontrollable events that harness the power to permanently alter your environment in the blink of an eye, whether you’re ready or not.

Unwilling to accept our inability to know all variables in this large, complex world, we strain every last resource to gather and analyze mind-numbing amounts of data in an effort to predict when, where and how our operational environment will unfold. And we do this knowing that there is no definitive or actionable pattern in the interdependent systems that cause these events, and even if there were, predicting an event does nothing to prevent it.

This is why the first phase, perception, is the most important element in building SA. It requires you to continuously ask “What information is most important to my current and desired states?”, as opposed to exhaustively assessing each element of your environment.

How to improve it

Provide and accept Mutual Support. Situational Awareness can sink to critical lows during the execution phase, Mutual Support can provide you with the perspective you may or may not know you need

Use the Execution Toolkit to mitigate Task SaturationSM preventing the human nature to channelize attention on insignificant threats rather than those that can affect mission outcome


What it is

Your understanding of the individual and collective information gathered in the Perception phase. It requires you to ask “What is my reality?”

Why it’s important

If you’ve attended one of our programs in the past, you will likely remember our analysis of the events that led to the tragic fate of Eastern flight 401. On this late night flight nearly four decades ago, Eastern flight 401’s pilot, co–pilot and flight engineer channelized their collective attention on a malfunctioning flight instrument. During the effort to identify the issue, the auto-pilot was mistakenly disengaged and the plane began descending in altitude without any awareness from the flight crew.

That’s the issue with Task Saturation–it eliminates your ability to prioritize at times when prioritization is most important. The flight crew’s channelization on a blown light bulb prevented them comprehending the reality of their environment until mere seconds before impact. This tragic incident still serves as an instructive case forty years later, illustrating the direct impact your perception of information has on your comprehension of the environment.

How to improve it

Leverage the power of Red Teams

Work with subject matter experts and external consultants to supplement SA and mitigate groupthink


What it is

The decision stage, where you leverage perception and comprehension to evaluate what is coming and how to act.

Why it’s important

You won’t make the right decision every time, but improving your perception and comprehension will directly impact your ability to make the right decision more frequently. Before making any decisions, stop to confirm that the information you plan to act on is both relevant and unambiguously understood by yourself and your team. Only then will you be able to optimize your ability to forecast the cause-and-effect of controllable and uncontrollable events.

How to improve it

Incorporate Lessons Learned from the S.T.E.A.L.T.H. DebriefsSM of previous missions into your plan to accelerate group learning and establish a minimum threshold for action

Develop contingency plans to mitigate the need for rushed decision making

Plan within the appropriate scope of execution to maintain flexibility

Effective Team-Building Training Leads to Better Situational Awareness

If maintaining and improving individual and team SA sounds like a full-time job in itself, it doesn’t need to be. If you have a basic understanding of your market’s current trends, interdependencies on other markets and your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, you’re halfway there. But even if you don’t work in a high-reliability organization, you continually battle everything from external threats, information overload, technological advances and the resulting ebb-and-flow of complex, volatile markets. Flawless Execution and team building training will equip your teams with the tools to survive and thrive in an unforgiving world. The rate of change isn’t slowing so you must adapt – your organization depends on it.