ASK OCE — February 23, 2007 — Vol. 2, Issue 2
What's the Situation?
It can be a very uncomfortable feeling to sit in a project team staff meeting and realize that several of your team members view things very differently than you do. The glue that's missing is team situation awareness, according to Bill O'Keefe of United Space Alliance.
Situation awareness may sound like common sense, but consider these four perspectives on a project team: hardware, software, system integration, and project manager. All have a shared understanding of certain elements of the situation, but even in the best case there are different vantage points.
What exactly is situation awareness? It has its origins in human factors analysis, which looks at how humans interact with their surroundings, and it dates back as far as discussions about pilots in World War I. O'Keefe cites Dr. Mica Endsley's definition of situation awareness, which consists of three levels: perceiving the elements in a given environment, comprehending their meaning in the present, and projecting their meaning in the future. When a project team member reads a Gantt chart, for example, that person perceives the diagram, comprehends its meaning ("This is the schedule for our project"), and projects its future meaning ("The next big milestone is the Preliminary Design Review in six months").
According to O'Keefe, situation awareness is both distributed and shared. It's perfectly natural for the hardware team and software team to be concerned about different things. That's distributed situation awareness. At the same time, there also has to be shared situation awareness between those teams. Think of a Venn diagram of a project team where hardware and software are each represented by a circle—the overlapping area is where shared situation awareness exists.
So what causes disconnects in situation awareness? According to O'Keefe, the usual suspects include too little time, too many teams, constant change, complexity, and "can do" people.
Wait a minute...aren't "can do" people the best kind to have? It depends, says O'Keefe. The problem arises with team members who to try and plow through adversity with dogged determination, isolating themselves in an effort to push harder.
Improving situation awareness requires more than sheer grit. Some of the keys to good situation awareness include building ample time into the schedule to deal with inevitable distractions; communicating about decisions and actions; paying attention to others and looking for cues about their situation awareness; and giving and receiving feedback as an integrated team process.
Read Dr. Mica Endsley's "Theoretical Underpinnings of Situation Awareness: A Critical Review."