As a team leader, you want everyone on your team to have ‘the Big Picture’ and know what is going on around them. What you want is for each member of your team to have good Situation Awareness (SA). The most referenced definition of SA is by Dr. Mica Endsley:
"the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future."
Having good individual SA requires each team member to perceive what is going on around them and comprehend what that means to them now and in the near future.
1) Let’s start with the comprehending portion first because that is how a high performance team starts. Before starting their shift/ next event:
- the team discusses what should and might happen, and how that affects their ability to perform that task.
- they discuss what they want to do and what the expected results would look like.
- they discuss what might go wrong either due to external factors (threats) or internal factors (errors), what each threats and errors might look like and what would be the results of each threat or error until the team has audibly built a shared understanding about what to watch out for during task performance.
By the end of the discussion the team would know what they should be perceiving and comprehending, and what should and might happen now and in the future.
2) Now during the shift or task, you want everyone on your team noticing what is or is not happening. This covers the perception portion of SA: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting or smelling what is going on around you. There are two main reasons why people fail to perceive well enough to support a team's performance. The first is ‘environmental’, meaning it was too hot, or too cold, or too dark, or too bright, or too noisy, or too whatever for your team member to perceive properly. Or maybe the team member didn’t have the right information, or the information is mixed up with too much extraneous data for anyone to pick it out, or it was too ambiguous. The second reason that someone didn’t perceive properly is because s/he is too busy doing something else, either due to workload or distractions. It turns out the easiest and best way to improve chances of perceiving is managing workload and distractions. Give your team the time and mental resources to perceive properly.
Beyond perceiving something, the team member must realize if the data is or is not what was expected. Why would someone not understand that something is wrong? The first reason is again workload or distractions. The team member did not have the time or mental resources to think about it, i.e. to comprehend. If you hear “if I had a second to think about it, I would have figure it out”, you have a workload/ distraction problem. Or it might be a related multi-tasking problem, where people are jumping between tasks.
There is a ‘SA tax’ every time someone jumps back to a task: a few seconds where the person must rebuild their SA on where they were, what was happening and what it meant.
If they don’t have the time to rebuild that SA, errors are very possible. Managing workload, distractions and multi-tasking is again the easiest way to improve your SA. The second reason is due to lack of training or experience: the team member didn’t know that something is wrong or couldn’t comprehend or project its impact. I will cover training for SA in a later blog.
One last point: about what areas does the team need to have SA? If you were an airline captain, it is not enough to perceive high engine temperature, and comprehend and project a future engine failure. I call that Subsystem SA. You also have to comprehend how that will affect the airplane (System SA), your ability to get to Seattle (Mission SA) while flying over the Rocky Mountains (Environment SA) with an inexperienced co-pilot (Team SA). Regardless of what you call the various terms, it it important to note that to have good overall SA, it requires you and your team to perceive, comprehend and project over this wider, nested range of information. This is usually accomplished by using what is called a scan pattern that you and your team develop together. For example, you may decide to check your Sub-System SA on the tenth minute of every hour, your System SA every 3o minutes, your Team SA every shift change, and your Mission SA every week.
In the next blog, I will cover Team Communication.