Category Archives: Situational Understanding

Is there a difference between Situational Awareness, Situational Understanding and being Self-Aware?

One might argue that by simply having good human performance means that you are “situationally aware.” Look back into causal analysis and investigations as to the points where errors were made – some person or group lost awareness at that point, otherwise the error most likely would not have happened, or if it did, it would be immediately mitigated by the person or group from turning into something of a higher consequential outcome. Like it or not, human performance was created with the goal of getting task performers more aware, and usually after some unexpected outcome is when we realize that we were not fully aware.

Whenever I train on this subject, I typically mention the two Human Performance Tools that help to get us Situational Awareness: Job Site Review (2-Minute Drill, 2-Minute Time Out, 2-Minute Rule, 360 for Safety, Take a Minute, Bechtel’s 20-20-20, etc.) and a Questioning Attitude (we will explore QA on another blogpost). When we get to the job site we take at least two minutes to get familiar with our surroundings, how we are interacting with it, and how it is interacting with us, looking above and below the work areas when on or below grating in the power plant. My old Dominion HU buddy (Bob E.) used to say do it with “E’s” (ease): Explore, Ensure, & Eliminate.

Explore the job site looking for any error precursors and hazards

Ensure the precursors not eliminated are communicated to co-workers (and supervision) and continuously being managed

Eliminate precursors and job hazards

What is the difference between Situational Awareness and Situational Understanding?

Last week I met a really interesting Training Officer (Mikewho works for a section of Homeland Security and is former Army Staff College Instructor who turned me onto a 2010 article that discusses this in depth:

Richard Stuart Maltz writes, “…the problems start with a poor philosophical foundation. In each instance, it is assumed that human decision makers are essentially interchangeable and need only access to a common set of data to achieve ‘shared situational awareness.’ This is generally presumed to automatically result in ‘shared situational understanding,’ which, in turn, is generally presumed to automatically yield the ultimate goal of self-synchronization (disparate units automatically acting in concert, even with limited communications).”

I tend to break things down so they are more relatable to me, and since I’m not trained in warfare, I likened it to football. Shared situational understanding on the move, seems to apply well here with some type of option play, where everyone has the same goal even without talking to each other, and whatever the culture is drives what happens next. What the article didn’t explore was how to create the desired culture – which I believe is through consistent training, practice, and leadership. In high-stress situations people trust their training and certain leaders to keep them safe. Synchronization (as in the possibly fictional, “Blitzkrieg” tactic – I’ve recently done a bit of reading on wikipedia about it) happens when people rely on their leaders, their communication technology, and their training. The Germans certainly had a cult-like culture during war-time, with superior communication tech and plenty of Panzar tanks and air superiority in these ground campaigns.

If you’re interested in pursuing this further, you can check out a book about the Red Baron, “Attack Out of the Sun.” The author (Durwood J Heinrich, Ph D) defines situation awareness as “the continuous exploration and integration of all relevant elements of the dynamic environment, including individual credentials, to facilitate anticipation, decision making, and execution.” Richthofen’s success was based on an extreme outlier quality of his own situation awareness. This by the way, is my second favorite definition of situation awareness, and closer related to the aforementioned article’s version of Situation Understanding. So, what is my favorite? From the book Sleights of Mind, “The deliberate perception of everything happening in the immediate space and time, the comprehension of its meaning, and the prediction of what may happen next.” I would slightly modify it to read, “the accurate prediction of what may happen next.”

Both definitions suggest becoming aware or maintaining awareness takes intention to have attention. You can quote me on that.

(Thanks for the article suggestion Mike!)

What does it mean to be Self-Aware?

Do you remember the Terminator movie where some fictitious General said that Skynet (the computer controlling machines and military) had become self-aware? Do you remember the first thing it started to do? Protect itself by eliminating its major threats.  Isn’t that how humans work? Granted the movie is fiction, but the concept works nicely into the topic. In just two minutes this video by Colion Noir captures exactly the concept of being on high red alert all the time when you are legally carrying a concealed gun, but does so in a common sense approach that really explains human fallibility and how we use our mind and our gut feelings to be situationally and self-aware.

Some Excellent SA Training Material Links:

Coast Guard Training – all of this is really put together well

Click here and see the section on “Levels of Awareness”

Wikipedia covers it in depth, and it’s worth checking out Endsley’s model for some theory

Click here for Flight training – I really like the internal vs. external awareness section and overall presentation

Shared Situational Awareness in Surgery – go straight to the conclusion and then go back and read through the self-talk section – communication is always key.

Do you have any training suggestions for the topic? Please send them in – I am thinking about building a comprehensive course on this topic and could use a lot of great resources. See you soon.