Are You Situationally Aware?


US Air Force pilots flying the F-86 were up against the Soviet MiG-15 in air-to-air combat in the Korean War. By most measures, the MiG-15 was a superior aircraft—It was faster; it could fly higher; and it could turn more rapidly. Yet it was lacking in at least two ways:

  1. The MiG-15 cockpit gave pilots less visibility than the F-86.
  2. The MiG-15 flight controls were manual, while the F-86 were hydraulic.

Engineers designing aircraft assumed superior maneuverability would win.  This assumption was thrown on its head in the Korean War as the F-86 won nine out of ten dogfights against the MiG-15.

When asked the reason for their overwhelming dominance, pilots credited their success to being able to observe the enemy’s current situation and anticipating his next move before the enemy could observe and anticipate his own.

Situational Awareness

Col. John Boyd, ace pilot and military strategist, argued that winning in air-to-air combat requires having:

  • Better situational awareness;
  • Using that information to make decisions more rapidly;
  • Taking action that changes the situation in ways the enemy cannot even observe or comprehend; and
  • Repeating this process over and over again.

For a skilled fighter pilot with exceptional situational awareness, this cycle might take just a second.  For businesses with annual planning cycles, the process could take a year or even longer.  Is this acceptable?

Upping the Tempo

High levels of situational awareness gives us the ability to operate at a quicker tempo than the enemy.  Boyd said it this way:

“In order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries… Such activity will make us appear unpredictable to our competitors.”

Accelerating the tempo we work at by improving situational awareness is something that Jack Welch understood at GE. He said:

“When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is in sight.”

Does the rate of change on the outside exceed the rate of change inside your organization?  What are you doing to improve your situational awareness?

Start with observing your competitors’s current situation and anticipating their next move before they anticipate their own.