Situational Awareness – Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Infinity symbol

Situational awareness, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “…the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event”. In other words, it’s having a handle on what currently is and what is about to happen. It’s a concept that is invaluable to a wide range of interests, particularly management/leadership, architectural design, and innovation. It’s a concept that crosses levels, from tactical to strategic. Just as socio-technical systems architectures exist in a fractal space (application to solution to enterprise), so too does the concept of situational awareness. As such, it’s a common theme for this site, particularly over the last year or so.

The OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop, developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, is a framework for decision-making that explicitly incorporates situational awareness:

OODA Loop Diagram

Coupling sense-making with decision-making is critical to achieve a balance of both speed and effectiveness. In my opinion, acting without taking the state of the environment into account is a recipe for disaster. Equally important (likewise, in my opinion), is understanding the dynamic nature of situational awareness. As Boyd’s diagram above shows, it’s not a linear process. Additionally, the very nature of a loop should convey the fact that there’s neither beginning nor end. This is a key concept.

One of the sites that I follow is Slightly East of New, which is run by an associate of Boyd’s and dedicated to his theories. A recent post on that site, “The magic of the OODA loop”, related a paragraph from a sci-fi novel, The Apocalypse Codex, that referred to OODA:

Observe, orient, decide, act: words to live or die by. Right now, Persephone is disoriented — on the run, cut off. It’s time to go on the offensive, work out where she is and what’s going on, then get the hell out of this trap.

It was an interesting post, but nothing noteworthy, until I got to this comment:

I find the phrase, “…on the run, cut off.” very interesting, within the context of “disoriented”. To me, “on the run” mean a decision has been made and acted on, whereas “disorientation” usually means that one can’t make a decision.
Likewise, “cut off” is the position you find yourself in, after all the decisions have been made and, after thinking about it, it is the posture you observe yourself to be in.
In other words, on the run and cut off is not really a disorientation, but a reality.
So, while you may not survive, you have made a decision to run or you are about to make a decision and join the otherside.
I suppose it just depends on where those words show up in the narrative, as to if you made the decision or your competitor made the decision for you.

I may be over-sensitive to the phrasing, but “…decision has been made and acted on…” and “…after all the decisions have been made…” strike me as being too static and too linear. Every action/inaction follows on decision/indecision. The point “…after all the decisions have been made…” is terminal (for the person who has made all the decisions they will make). In my opinion, it is key to bear in mind that the clock is always running and that the reality being processed is already past. Too much attention to the state of what is (or rather, was) takes away from the more important task of getting to a better “to be” state. Additionally, decisions and contexts should be thought of as not just linear, but fractal (e.g. having multiple levels from tactical through strategic) as well.

Loops that have an end are no longer loops. Likewise, we have to be able to strike a balance between just focusing on what’s relevant (too much context/backstory can cause information overload) and the point where we’ve trimmed away necessary context.

Actively thinking about sense-making and decision-making can seem overly academic. The activities are so foundational to nearly everything that they can feel instinctual rather than learned. I suspect that’s a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”. Depending on the application, contempt for developing the best possible situational awareness could be fatal.

[OODA Loop diagram by Patrick Edwin Moran via Wikimedia Commons]

Learning Organizations: When Wrens Take Down Wolfpacks

A Women's Royal Naval Service plotter at work in the Operations Room at Derby House in Liverpool, the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, September 1944.

What does the World War II naval campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic have to do with learning and innovation?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Early in the war, Britain found itself in a precarious position. While being an island nation provided defensive advantages, it also came with logistical challenges. Food, armaments, and other vital supplies as well as reinforcements had to come to it by sea. The shipping lanes were heavily threatened, primarily by the German u-boat (submarine) fleet. Needing more than a million tons of imports per week, maintaining the flow of goods was a matter of survival.

Businesses may not have to worry about literal torpedoes severing their lifelines, but they are at risk due to a number of factors. Whether its changing technology or tastes, competitive pressures, or even criminal activity, organizations cannot afford to sit idle. In his post “Heraclitus was wrong about innovation”, Greger Wikstrand talked about the mismatch between the speed of change (high) and rate of innovation (not fast enough). This is a recurrent theme in our ongoing discussion of innovation (we’ve been trading posts on the subject for over a year now).

The British response to the threat involved many facets, but an article I saw yesterday about one response in particular struck a chord. “The Wargaming “Wrens” of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit” told the story of a group of officers and ratings of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (nicknamed “Wrens”) who, under the command of a naval officer, Captain Gilbert Roberts, revolutionized British anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Their mandate was to “…explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass them on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW course”.

Using simulation (wargaming) to develop and improve tactics was an unorthodox proposition, particularly in the eyes of Admiral Percy Noble, who was responsible for Britain’s shipping lifeline. However, Admiral Noble was capable of appreciating the value of unorthodox methods:

A sceptical Sir Percy Noble arrived with his staff the next day and watched as the team worked through a series of attacks on convoy HG.76. As Roberts described the logic behind their assumptions about the tactics being used by the U-Boats and demonstrated the counter move, one that Wren Officer Laidlaw had mischievously named Raspberry, Sir Percy changed his view of the unit. From now on the WATU would be regular visitors to the Operations Room and all escort officers were expected to attend the course.

Each of the courses looked at ASW and surface attacks on a convoy and the students were encouraged to take part in the wargames that evaluated potential new tactics. Raspbery was soon followed by Strawberry, Goosebery and Pineapple and as the RN went over to the offensive, the tactical priority shifted to hunting and killing U Boats. Roberts continued as Director of WATU but was also appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence at Western Approaches Command.

This type of learning culture, such as I described in “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, was key to winning the naval war. Clinging to tradition would have led to a fatal inertia.

One aspect of the WATU approach that I find particularly interesting is the use of simulation to limit risk during learning. Experiments involving real ships cost real lives when they don’t pan out. Simulation (assuming sufficient validity of the theoretical underpinnings of the model used) is a technique that can be used to explore more without sending costs through the roof.

Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler

Grizzly Bear Attack Illustration

Prior to starting my career in IT (twenty years ago this month…seems like yesterday), I spent a little over eleven years in law enforcement as a Deputy Sheriff. Over those eleven years my assignments ranged from working a shift in the jail (interesting stories), to Assistant Director of the Training Academy, then Personnel Officer (even more interesting stories), and finally, supervisory and management positions (as many headaches as stories). To say that it was as much an education as a job is to put it mildly. I learned useful lessons about human nature and particularly about leadership.

One of the things that I learned is that leadership and management (they are related, but separate things) have patterns and anti-patterns associated with them. Just like in the realm of software development, it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s a pattern and what’s an anti-pattern (there’s an interesting discussing to be found on this topic in the classic “Big Ball of Mud”). Hammering a square peg into a round hole “works”, albeit sub-optimally. Pattern or anti-pattern?

One pattern/anti-pattern from my time with the Sheriff’s Office is what I call “The Growler”. A high-ranking member of the department was a master of this technique. When approached for something, particularly when the something in question was a signature on a purchase requisition, the default response was a profanity-laced growl (the person in question had retired from the Navy as a senior NCO) demanding to know why he should grant the request. This was extremely daunting, but I learned that the correct response was to growl back. When he growled, “%$@$ a !#&^ing $@!#*. More $%&^ing computer stuff, why the @#*& do you need this?”, I would answer, “You know when you ask me a question and I respond in five minutes instead of three hours”. This would result in a shake of his head, a “Yeah, yeah”, and most importantly, a signature.

More than just an endearing quirk of his character, it was a triage technique. If the person who wanted something tucked tail and ran, it wasn’t important. If, however, the person stood their ground, then he would put forth the effort to make a decision.

Right up front, I should make it clear that I don’t recommend this technique. First and foremost, Human Resources finds “salty” language even less endearing today than they did twenty-five plus years ago, and they weren’t crazy about it then. There’s also a big problem in terms of false negatives.

Most of my coworkers back in my badge and gun days were not shy, retiring types. Consequently, I never saw it backfire for that person. Later on, though, I did see it fail for an IT manager (and yes, while gruff, he was significantly less “salty” than the one at the Sheriff’s Office). This manager had a subordinate who would retreat no matter how valid the need. Consequently, that subordinate’s unit, one that several of us were dependent on, was always under-staffed and under-equipped. When his people attended training, it was because someone else had growled back for him. It was far from the optimal situation.

While not quite as bad as the “shoot the messenger” anti-pattern I touched on recently, “The Growler” comes close. By operating on a principle of fear, you can introduce a gap in your communications and intelligence network that you rely on (whether you know it or not) to get the information you need in a timely manner.

Fear encourages avoidance and no news now can be very bad news later.

Learning Organizations – Shooting the Messenger All the Way to the Fuhrerbunker

Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s a near certainty that you’ve seen at least one Downfall parody video (although I hadn’t realized just how long these had been around until I started working on this post…time flies!). There’s a reason why they’ve managed to hang on as a meme as long as they have. The “shoot the messenger” style of management, in spite of all the weight of evidence against it, is still alive and well.

When Tom Cagley and I were recording the Form Follows Function segment for SPaMCast 407, one of Tom’s questions brought to mind the image of Hitler’s delusional ranting in the bunker made famous by these parodies. The subject of the segment was my post “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, which deals with the need for a culture of learning to be able to deal effectively with the change that has become a constant in our world. Tom keyed in on one point (taken from a talk I’d attended put on by Professor Edward Hess): ‘candor, facing the “brutal facts” is essential to a learning culture’. Although his leadership failures pale in significance to the atrocities that he was responsible for, the Hitler portrayed in these clips demonstrates that point vividly.

It should be unnecessary to point out that flying into a rage when given bad news does nothing to change the nature of those events. It is particularly destructive when the bearer of the news is attacked even when blameless for what they’re reporting. Far from helping anything, the temper tantrum ensures that negative information is only delivered when it can no longer be hidden, hampering the ability to react in a timely and effective manner. A vicious circle builds up where delay, spin, and outright deception replace candor.

Delusional, drug-addled dictators can be expected to operate in this manner (thank heavens). The rest of us should aim for better.

It can be inconvenient to have to deal with crises; it’s more inconvenient to find out about them when the situation is unsalvageable. Maturity, humility, and perspective can be difficult character traits to develop, but not as difficult as finding yourself under siege from a world of enemies with only the pathetic dregs of your minions for company.

Organizations as Systems – “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”

Bavarian Crown and Regalia, Royal Treasury Munich


One of the benefits of having a (very) wide range of interests is that every so often a flash of insight gets dropped into my lap. In this case, it was a matter of “We must recognise that single events have multiple causes” showing up as a suggested read from Aeon on the same day that Thomas Power retweeted this:

The image in the tweet is an excerpt from an interview with Rory Stewart, Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith in the UK. The collision of themes between the two articles struck me.

“You get there and you pull the lever, and nothing happens.”

The behavior of a system is determined not by the structure of the components of that system, but by the relationships and interactions between those components. Moreover, those relationships and interactions are dynamic and complex, even when that’s contrary to the designer’s intent. In fact, the gap between the behavior as intended and as experienced introduces a tension. I would argue that it’s less a matter of nothing happening when the “lever” is pulled and more that something different from what’s expected happens. Rather than simple cause and effect, “if this, then that”, multiple factors are in play.

In mechanical systems, parts wear, subtly changing the physics of the mechanism. Foreign objects invading the system can impose change in a more dramatic fashion. Context, both that of the system’s internals and its environment, influences its operation.

As was noted in the Aeon article, agency adds to the complexity. In social systems, all of the “components” are individuals with agency, making those systems chaotic in at least the colloquial sense of the word. Using Tom Graves’ sense-making framework, SCAN, these interactions fall into the more uncertain quadrants, either “Ambiguous but Actionable” or “Not-known, None-of-the-above”. Attempting to deal with them as though they fell into the “Simple and Straightforward” quadrant increases the likelihood of getting unexpected results.

Learning/sense-making is critical to dealing with change, whether internal or external (or both). The manner in which change is appreciated and reacted to, affects the health of the system. Consider three boilers: one where pressure is continuously monitored and adjusted, one which is equipped with a pressure relief valve which will open prior to a catastrophic failure, and one where problems are signaled by an explosion. It’s a trivial exercise to come up with examples of social systems, from businesses all the way up to political systems, using the third method. It’s probably a more interesting exercise to consider why that’s the case for so many.

In a recent post, “Architecting the shadows”, Tom Graves discussed the phenomenon of ad hoc, unofficial “shadow” organizational interactions that arise in order to get work done:

In SCAN terms, we could summarise the generic positioning of all ‘shadow’ functions – shadow-IT, shadow-business-models, shadow-management and more – much as follows:

Scan Diagram: Official vs. Shadow

In other words, the ‘shadow’-world exists to deal with and resolve all the uncertainties and over-simplifications that overly-mechanistic management models tend to overlook. Even in more aware management-models, in which some exploration of the uncertain is officially sanctioned and allowed, the shadow-world will still always need to exist – particularly whenever the work gets closer towards real-time action:

Scan Diagram: Official vs. Shadow showing sanctioned Shadow Activity

In closing the post, Tom makes the following observation:

As the literal ‘the architecture of the enterprise’, a real enterprise-architecture must, by definition, cover every aspect of the enterprise – including all of the ‘shadow’-elements. And yet, also by definition, those ‘shadow’-elements cannot be brought ‘under control’ – not least because they deal with the themes and factors that are beyond the reach of conventional concepts of ‘control’.

The “conventional concepts of ‘control'”, the deluded belief that complex interactions can be managed as though they were simple, poses an immense risks to organizations. Even attempting to treat those interactions as merely complicated, rather than complex, introduces a gap between reality and perception, between “the way we do things” and the way things actually get done. When the concept and reality of the system’s interactions differ, it’s more likely that the components of the system will wind up working at cross-purposes.

In a comment on Tom’s post, I noted that where the shadow elements are a “French Resistance”, flouting the rules in order to actually get work done, that’s a red flag.

The most important thing to learn about management and governance is knowing when and how to manage or govern and more importantly, when not to. Knowing what can actually be controlled is an important first step.

“Distance…is the one true enemy…”

Gregory Brown tweeted a great series on the problem of distance last week:

It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed in nine tweets. It’s amazing how many aspects of a very complex socio-technical undertaking, software development, are affected by this concept of distance. I would argue that this concept of distance applies likewise to the social systems that software development belongs to as a component part.

Distance between action and result as well as distance between result and response are just as much a problem for social systems as software systems. This was one of the main themes of “The Ignorance of Management – Deep and Wide”, trying to manage too far down the hierarchy just doesn’t scale. There are too many decisions at too deep a level of detail across too many areas for this to be effective.

It’s a case of mismatched impedance, resulting in overload. Increased distance equals increased transmission time, meaning that remote decisions will either take longer (risking timeliness of the decision) or will have to be made with less consideration (risking the fitness of the decision). Likewise, the greater number of decisions being made due to an inappropriate distance will force the same set of trade-offs. Time spent on lower-level issues also reduces time available for issues that are appropriate to the decision-maker’s level. This places even more pressure on the decision-maker in terms of being either hasty or late.

Ironically, better control is likely to come from delegating decision-making to the appropriate level of the organization than attempting to micro-manage. The true test of leadership, in my opinion, is not how things run when a leader is present, but how things run when they’re not. Adding distance stacks the deck, and not in your favor.

When Will We Learn?

Plato's Academy mosaic from Pompeii

We’ve all heard the sayings about history repeating. Did we pay attention? Did we actually hear what was said, or were we just in the room when it was mentioned? Did we learn anything?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading posts on innovation for more than seven months. His last post, “Black hat innovation”, touched on the dark side of innovation:

I think the following are good examples of black hat innovation in the digital space: credit card fraud, ransomware and identity theft. There are many other black hat innovations that does not rely on tech such as chain letters, counterfeit money and even weighted dice.

Greger noted “Sometimes, it might seem as if black hat innovation out paces white hat innovation.” Certainly, a black hat innovator faces fewer barriers to innovation. Following rules is less of a consideration when breaking rules. We also have to be aware of the advantage we give them when we fail to learn from the past. None of the abuse cases that Greger mentioned are black swans. They’re merely new ways to commit old crimes. Waiting to react to a foreseeable issue means we start from behind because we failed to learn.

Failure to learn can manifest in a variety of ways. In his post, “Enterprise challenges”, Peter Murchland noted:

All enterprises face challenges (of varying magnitude and complexity). These challenges are either problems to be solved or opportunities to be pursued. One way of considering these challenges is through the following three lenses – those arising due to:

  • external change
  • internal change
  • growth and development

Peter asserts that the health of an enterprise depends on integrating coherent responses to these challenges into its architecture. This is a position shared by Aaron Dignan in “How To Eliminate Organizational Debt”:

Organizational Debt: The interest companies pay when their structure and policies stay fixed and/or accumulate as the world changes.

Let’s unpack that. As time passes, companies create roles, structures, rules, policies, and other norms that become fixed, and often, difficult to change. This is by design. For example, a company’s travel budget may balloon one year, only to be restricted by a travel policy the next — a well intentioned control designed to reduce expense. If that policy starts costing more than it’s saving (e.g. by reducing commercial success due to a lack of face time, frustrating top talent, etc.), it becomes an unacknowledged debt. The “interest” comes in the form of reduced speed, capacity, engagement, flexibility, and innovation that ultimately undermine the macro objectives of the firm: to survive, thrive, and achieve its purpose.

In other words, failure to learn leads to failure to adapt to a changing context, internal and/or external. This mismatch between the enterprise and its context represents a destructive friction. Since an enterprise is a social system and the components of a social system are people, this means that the effects of this friction erodes morale. Disengaged, demotivated employees will hinder an organization’s ability to deliver effectively. The only question is how much of a hindrance it will be.

In my post “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, I talked about the value of a learning culture for an organization. Effective execution requires effective decision-making, which requires learning. If we haven’t learned from the past, then there’s no rational basis for our future actions. We’re winging it solely on the basis of hope.

An organization is unlikely to develop a learning culture by accident. Just as a tornado hitting an auto parts store is unlikely to spit out a sports car, it’s unlikely that a system of sensing and adjusting to an ever-changing environment will emerge without intentional action. The social system that is the enterprise has a design and requires design, much the way an automated system has a design and requires design. Part of that design should incorporate learning.

Different organizations will have different needs and different styles of learning. Getting groups of people together to play with technology (as described by Matt Ballantine in his post “The Art of Play”) may not work for every organization. However, it is shortsighted to make no provision for learning whatsoever. Even the British Army in World War I, a conservative institution with an aristocratic officer corps in a conflict that can be described as 19th century warfare with 20th century weapons, “…developed a number of different methods to disseminate knowledge, catering for a variety of different circumstances and needs”. With a hundred years’ worth of extra experience and technology, it would be hard to justify taking a less rigorous approach.