Tag Archive for situational awareness

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Continuity Planning & Situation Awareness

Success in projects large and small often relies on a great deal of “situation awareness”—the awareness of dynamic factors integral to and surrounding a project and of the extent to which a change in one variable affects the whole.

Some of the most critical variables in any project are, of course, humans.

Situation awareness must always include an assessment of the human environment within which a project is taking place, and if you are the leader (an executive or project manager), you must be prepared to adjust your style and approach based on the personalities, power relationships, motivations, and intentions you encounter.

If that sounds multi-layered and complex, it is. The human brain is still the most powerful and creative computer we know of, but all that grey matter comes with baggage. Even before actual work ever gets done, leaders must seek common understanding and trust—and appropriate boundaries. There are no true cookie cutter management applications or algorithms—we always have to make adjustments.

A Modern Fable

To illustrate, let me tell you a story from my past experience—a kind of modern version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper!”

At the beginning of the last decade, I was consulting with a multi-national corporation when continuity planning became a hot topic. It was a sidebar to the Y2K debacle, when companies were forced to make adjustments based on short-sighted computer programming that had not provided for the switch from “1999” to “2000.”

As 2000 approached our organization realized that anything programmed with dates—security systems, printers, engineering controllers—might not work if relying on date-driven information. (In a related example, when I was working for a very large media company, a building security system was tested for the year 2000; it locked all the doors in corporate headquarters and would not be opened without being completely dismantled!)

“What Are Your Priorities?”

As information officer, responsibility for continuity planning fell on me and my staff. Since we were a federal contractor, we used the methodology prescribed by the General Accounting Office (GAO), and we hired a “Big Five” consulting firm to perform third party validation.

These two decisions created pressure for buy-in by the organization to participate. Additionally, we didn’t just make this a Y2K exercise, but a business continuity exercise, posing the general question, “How long can you afford to not do business, and what are the priorities to maintain minimal operations?”

The study became an exercise in situation awareness within a complex system, conducted over six months.

It produced an inventory of facilities and IT systems—essentially anything that had a controller in it, including lowly stamp machines. Items were rated for effect on mission critical operations. Scenarios were examined for contractual, political, and natural incidents that could cause disruptions. These were run through multifunctional teams for review, testing, and prioritizing. We created emergency plans, maps, and communication trees that included meet-up locations, service level agreements from providers, and alternative phone systems.

A Natural Disaster

Every office participated, but one. And sure enough, a disaster struck that office causing a continuity crisis—its facility’s roof was ripped off in a hurricane. Because there was no continuity plan in place, this subsidiary and the project office were unable to meet contractual requirements, and they both went out of business.

Meanwhile, through advance testing, every system but one mail machine in the corporate office had been addressed prior to Y2K and coped with the date change just fine. And when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened, the same plan was used and the organization quickly locked down project areas that were considered susceptible to terrorist strikes.

The teamwork and collaboration involved in this project must be noted. Due to the complexity of the organization and the services rendered, there was no reliance on an individual—or, to allude to another fable, on the boy with a finger in the dyke.

Teams were important and players had to be able to assume each other’s roles. For example, when the voice-over IP communications lines went down briefly during the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks, two remote engineers stepped in for the IT people, who were busy being safety marshals.

By referring to the Emergency Manual, individuals in Alabama and North Dakota were able to reroute communications lines through emergency dial up connections that the organization maintained for critical connectivity. Not only was safety ensured—and calm maintained—but investor and public relations kept communications channels open, even as some larger companies were affected by leaks and improper information disclosure by employees in the midst of that crisis.

Managing Chaos, or Predicting the Unpredictable

If you want to observe the role of chaos in management theory, help run a sports program! A hockey player, I have helped run a few over the years. Yes, there’s lots about these programs that’s very orderly and top-down, with one exception.

Messy Humans

Typically, hockey programs run on predictable schedules that are the same year-in, year-out. Decision-making is usually fact-based and easy to implement, with clear delegation to a hierarchy of coaches, managers, and staff. But there is always one factor that adds a dose of chaos—the human factor.

A committee might not have proper authority to make decisions; individuals have personal agendas; parents intervene; “referees suck;” and there’s always inappropriate personal relationships, feuds, and ill discipline.

Humans are messy—but in a sports program, authority tends to rest on the shoulders of a director. As long as everyone respects authority, he or she is able to decisively move forward on any issue, either by reference to policy, or experience, or industry standards.

However, according to management philosopher Meg Wheatley, “If you’re interested in creating sustainable growth, sustainable productivity, sustainable morale, you can’t do that through autocracy.”

Document Everything

Simply dictating behavior and outcomes doesn’t work in most cases these days. Well, maybe it does in a hockey program—but Wheatley says you’ll be surprised how self-correcting and complexly adaptable the Army is!

In this interview, Wheatley discusses chaos management theory. Of course, she doesn’t mean that sustainable organizations are anarchic; rather, they have the ability to turn seemingly random events (i.e. the human factor) into patterns that can help them learn and predict outcomes. The Army, notes Wheately, “studies history carefully” and “documents everything.”

But is this approach good for all businesses? Once a hockey coach introduced a new training regimen to my program—small group games—bringing to bear his experience and learning. Other coaches were easy to win over. But parents are results-oriented. They wanted full scrimmages, goals, wins. They resisted, until a collaborative approach was taken and the “whys” and “wherefores” were shared—opening up the learning experience to the parents, who self-corrected and adapted.

Disruptive Change

However, most organizations have more moving parts than a hockey program. And many have much less tolerance for risk and much greater need for process stability—think hospitals or nuclear power plants. Creating a chaotic state might guarantee change; however, its direction cannot be guaranteed.

On the other hand, organizations that thrive on creativity may be better suited for chaos management. Technology firms, for instance, may benefit from disruptive change because they require constant innovation to stay competitive.

And traditional companies may at times benefit from disruptive change for the sake of survival. The print industry is shrinking due to the adoption of dynamic media such as websites, and Kodak’s recent bankruptcy is an example of a print industry firm that failed because its change management was perhaps not disruptive enough.

Pattern Finding

If your change management job is to deliver an expected outcome, perhaps chaos is not the first arrow to reach for. Or it could be if its lessons in pattern-finding are brought to bear. Recall that one discovery of this science is the fractal, the idea that simple, repeatable, mathematical patterns are at the heart of some of nature’s most efficient designs, such as snail shells and leaves.

If chaos management can be used to observe what is occurring as events unfold, and if it can help us react rationally to those unfolding events, then we’re onto something.

Chaos theory also teaches us that events are interconnected, affected by minute external changes—the so-called “butterfly effect.” Perhaps chaos management can help us recognize this interconnectedness and let go of the search for control and certainty, embracing probability, prediction, and forecasting as key management tools.

Leaders, I think, make decisions most successfully when they fully understand the context of the organization—its complexity, risk climate, human behavior, external factors such as politics—and they are even more successful when they monitor responses and act appropriately based on what they learn.

Observations on OODA, or Does the Machine Know?

Before you read this blog, watch this great clip from The Office and think about Michael’s situational awareness, decision-making process, and ability to update his “reality baseline!”

There are many theories that attempt to codify the decision-making process. One that has had a big influence on my decision-making approach is Boyd’s “OODA Loop.”

Col. John Boyd was a fighter pilot and military theorist whose analysis (and practice) of aerial combat led him to formulate high-level strategic military theories (including one that formed the basis of the Gulf War military plan) and general cognitive theories, including the OODA Loop, which has since become popular in business and sports.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is Boyd’s shorthand for the way humans interact with and control their environment. The idea is that individuals, businesses, armies, etc. that master the OODA loop gain the advantage.

These are the four simple steps in a dynamic OODA Loop:

  1. Observation: Take in data about the overall situation.
  2. Orientation: Analyze and make judgments about the situation.
  3. Decision: Determine a course of action.
  4. Action: Execute the action, then observe the decision (to start the loop again!)

When engaged in a game, business decision, battle, or otherwise, Boyd insists the successful “get inside the OODA Loop.” One strategy for success is to execute OODA loops faster than opponents, thereby improving situational awareness while the opponent loses effectiveness. Mistakes made by individuals or groups result from old information or mis-guided situational assessments and decisions.

Boyd suggests that organizations that execute the best OODA loops strike a balance between decentralized (and therefore nimble) decision-makers and top echelons that monitor from afar just enough to ensure that lower rank decision-makers adhere to a grand strategy. Not surprisingly, this describes the military hierarchy pretty well!

However, what is not specifically called out in the OODA model is the reflexive, critical thinking that can help refine and improve the connections between the OODA steps. American pragmatist thinkers—Dewey, James, Peirce—have much to say along these lines. Other theories that complicate OODA come from Karl Weick—his “Theory of Sensemaking,” for instance, examines the roles that ambiguity and uncertainty play in observation, analysis, and decision-making.

In fact, I keep in mind Weick’s Theory of Sensemaking at all times because my business requires constant and complex situational awareness, especially when collaborating with other organizations.

Michael from The Office probably should have updated his “reality baseline” rather than blindly trust his TomTom—he made a poor decision in the face of a common sense alternative. Writ large, a silly human error like his can become a colossal groupthink failure!

No More Dump ‘n’ Chase!

Dump ‘n’ Chase: An offensive strategy in ice hockey in which a team shoots (or “dumps”) the puck into the attacking zone and aggressively pursues it in hopes of retrieving possession and setting up a scoring chance. Most effective for teams with enough speed and size to force opposing defensemen off the puck. The strategy is often disparaged by broadcasters as lacking in creativity or entertainment value.

Another thought from my doctoral essay analyzing Daniel Bell’s The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting has to do with how Bell’s grand ideas can be applied at the level of business development and transformation.

Bell’s example teaches us that when dealing with today’s highly complex, highly integrated business and economic issues, we may need to think in terms of ontologies rather than strict categories or taxonomies. I see the grand idea of his book as this—our economy has shifted away from manufacturing (analogous to the mechanical, Newtonian, Euclidean) toward a knowledge economy (ontological, quantum, non-Euclidean) and that we must understand how this shift affects and informs society, business, and ways of thinking.

In his book, Bell shies away from offering a new grand plan for how to operate or think in the knowledge economy. His paradigm shift is actually an invitation to consider new perspectives and to “think outside the box” as the business cliché goes!

An analogy from ice hockey, a sport I have played and coached. There are two prominent team approaches in this sport—systems/tactics and concepts. Those who cannot think in the abstract or lack inherent talent must play using systems/tactics, and the most notorious and artless of these is “dump ‘n’ chase.”

Beyond this tactic, there are complex playbooks that lay out plays to be memorized by a team. During a memorized play, each player is equally important to the team’s success as a whole, and if one player forgets his/her role (“Oh, I was supposed mark THAT player?!”), the model fails and it’s 0-1!

However, teams that play using the concept approach allow the natural ability and communication of the players to set the tone. Skills are still important but they are inherent to these advanced players. There can be components and inconsistencies, but this team is more likely to win because an opposing team that plays by systems/tactics can’t adjust and defend again the unpredictable nature of concepts.

(A colleague tells me there’s a similar analogy for soccer fans. Think “kick ‘n’ rush” tactical soccer found in Europe’s lower divisions versus the “total football” conceptual approach favored by the “soccer is an art form” teams such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Arsenal.)

My point is that those who play by systems alone—whether a hockey or soccer team or a business—will never grow beyond a certain level. Those who use structure as a means to organize but at the same time apply concepts to see the bigger, complex picture use a winning combination for today’s technological environment.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS AND DECISION SUPPORT ON THE US BORDER Operations and Systems Improvements

AVI Management Group (AVIsion) was recently contacted by several engineering specialists who are currently involved with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded Secure Border Initiatives (SBI) program.

AVIsion was asked to help provide solutions that can solve the challenge of reliably incorporating data from disparate sources into the SBInet Common Operating Picture (COP) used by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  After review of the program, several factors have been identified that if implemented, will greatly enhance its effectiveness. The current program can be leveraged and expanded using existing assets such as the Waypoint GIS system, repurposing the dispatch system software currently used for SBInet DSS, and sharing resources with programs such as SPAWAR. In addition, communications networks could be reconfigured to extend the original vision of SBInet to the field.

While the SBI program is on hold pending congressional review, the CBD still has two requirements of utmost importance;

  1. To be able to recognize and track legitimate breaches of US borders, and
  2. Identify targets and intentions prior to apprehension.

Historically missing from the DHS modus operandi is a roadmap and strategy to achieve afore mentioned requirements on a comprehensive scale. In the case of CBP, a vision for managing the perimeter of the United States is paramount to determining operational and tactical approaches that can close gaps on the border. At the national level, DHS needs to feed a comprehensive analytics solution for managing resources, predicting patterns and behaviors beyond local environments. Introduction of a feedback loop through the command chain will further enhance situational awareness and decision making. Introduction of a feedback loop on a local level can constantly refine simple decision making as patterns reveal consistent successes under specific conditions.

AVIsion and its partners have a clear vision for how both CBP and DHS can operationally and technically manage tactical and strategic border security mandates. This vision includes the use of subject matter experts to perform a use-centered analysis on the unique needs and characteristics of each CBP sector and subsector. In addition this includes review of processes to identify improvments and efficiencies, as well as data and tools.

A comprehensive study is planned, resulting in an actionable blueprint that includes a master-level framework to ultimately deliver the right information to the right people, at the right time. This framework includes an intelligence platform, physical devices and architecture, people and process maps. The blueprint, based on a 15-year plan, will provide a short-term path, and a longer-term roadmap.

envisioned common operating picture condensed view

AVIsion possesses international enterprise-level information management, system design,and planning and implementation experience. Our company has experience in delivering comprehensive distributed systems into remote areas that have constrained communications systems and infrastructure.  An opportunity presently exists to provide alternative operational and technical approaches to CBP and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  AVIsion is also accepting partners and subject matter experts who feel they can contribute to this effort

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