Situational Awareness

Back a few years ago when I used to play first person shooter games quite frequently, I often helped other players by sharing with them the knowledge and experience I had acquired over the years. One piece of knowledge that I always passed on, time and time again, was the importance of utilizing situational awareness when playing as a team. With it, you could almost always overcome any opposing team, even if their individual skills surpassed those of your own team members. The reason being is that with situational awareness a team almost became like a symbiotic entity reacting instantly and immediately to different situations and threats without being slowed down by a central command and control. In effect, no single person in the team gave orders to the others, instead everyone relayed their situation and everyone else in turn reacted on their own to assist the other people in the group when the need arose.

One such perfect example was when we were playing a team who we felt we were on par with or possibly even exceeded with regards to our individual skill levels. However, after a few rounds of play we quickly realized we were doing something wrong. Round after round, we stuck close together, preplanned our moves in perfect detail, and then proceeded to get slaughered by the opposing team. Finally after being frustrated round after round, I said at the start of a new round "Forget it! Just do whatever you want!" Can you guess what happened? We won that round of course. And as soon as we had, I had know what I had been doing wrong. I had been trying to force my team members to work the way I wanted them to (through a central command and control approach) instead of trusting their skills and judgement to maximize their own unique strengths in overcoming the enemy. In effect, we were playing incorrectly as a rigid centralized perfect team against a well connected yet flexible decentralized team. We didn’t stand a chance, as we were like a bear trying to swat at a million bees buzzing around us.

Now for more information of what situational awareness is and what it can do for people working on collective goals, the US Coast Guard has an interesting site that talks about it in detail. Of particular interest is this quote below.

Effective team situational awareness depends on team members developing accurate expectations for team performance by drawing on a common knowledge base.  This concept, known as maintaining a “Shared Mental Model” allows team members to effectively:

  • Anticipate the needs of other team members.
  • Predict the needs of other team members.
  • Adapt to task demands efficiently.

To ensure a Shared Mental Model of the situation, team members must share their knowledge relative to:

  • The task and team goals.
  • Their individual tasks.
  • Team member roles and responsibilities.

To provide a solid base for building team situational awareness, team members need to have information that will help them develop relevant expectations about the entire team task.

I don’t know about you but that has collective thinking written all over it for me especially when they mention the "Shared Mental Model".

BTW one very important fact that I forgot to mention is that for this situational awareness to work, the rules for team collaboration had to be extremely simple. For us, it really all came down to what we called the "10 Second Rule". If another team member relayed a situation that we knew would put him at risk (i.e. multiple enemy inbound!), then we had 10 seconds to decide what we wanted to do and to respond. If he didn’t hear that response then he knew he was on his own. If he did hear a response (i.e. Affirmative, on my way!) then he knew that help would be showing up within 10 seconds as well (which means the person responding knew they had to get there in that time before confirming action). That’s really it though. A single simple rule. Everything else came down to combat training (i.e. when this type of situation occurs then here are a few ways to react to it) which created this "Shared Mental Model". And that shared mental training allowed everyone to take action as they saw fit, being flexible enough to handle every situation, and yet also allowed everyone to work on the "same page" as well.