Situational Awareness – supporting the CEO’s critical decision-making in a crisis

By Dominic Cockram

Situational awarenessThis blog is the second in a series that looks at the challenges of managing information in a crisis and how to ensure the top team gets the information it needs. The first looked at “Managing the Upward Flow of Information in a Crisis – What Matters Most?” Here managing information to build situational awareness is under the spotlight – how to pull together that cohesive and informative picture that gives the boss just what he needs and no more.

It is a fact that almost all crisis teams find information management one of the greatest challenges in responding to an incident. Why does this matter? It matters because effective information management is the bedrock that allows the critical decision-making by the strategic crisis management team that will lead an organisation out of a crisis.

Unlocking the Challenge of Information Management

The key steps to unlock the challenge of managing information in a crisis are to:

  • firstly understand what the target of the information is – how and what does it need to deliver and why?
  • secondly, have effective and suitable information management tools and processes, and
  • thirdly have a well-rehearsed and disciplined crisis management team (CMT) familiar with the purpose, the processes and with the dynamics of information management as a basis for strategic decision-making.

Creating Situational Awareness

What does this mean?

The aim of managing information in a crisis is to establish a good level of “situational awareness” (SA).  This may sound like “simply knowing what is going on” but in reality true “awareness” of your situation means much more.

Situational awareness should include:

  1. Knowing what has happened in the recent past
  2. Knowing what is happening now and what may happen next
  3. Knowing who is in charge at each level of the response (strategic, tactical, operational) and understanding their role and needs
  4. Considering the potential worst case scenario you may be facing
  5. Understanding what the risks are at various levels of the business at this time
  6. Having a real feel for the wider context of the crisis and its ramifications beyond the business
  7. Knowing what the media are saying about you and what themes might be developing
  8. Understanding how your staff, the public and key stakeholders perceive the crisis and the potential impacts on them
  9. Understanding the key time issues faced and any critical timings
  10. Being clear on the response strategies in place

What’s involved?

So, there is actually much, much more to SA than just a report on the incident.  It involves the collection and collation of information from various sources, with supporting assessment, evaluation, integration and dissemination in order to build a fully contextualised picture of the whole situation in the past, present and projected future perspectives.

Why is it important?

It is absolutely vital that the CEO or CMT leader has this contextual view of the situation established clearly to enable the strategic response of the business and, more specifically, to make critical decisions and to face the media.

All too often I see SA only partially achieved and CEOs wallowing in either a flood of information with no supporting assessment or with only a partial picture, having to fill in the gaps with undocumented assumptions and guesswork or relying on badly constructed reports. In the post-incident reviews I have conducted, a lack of situational awareness is too often cited as the root cause of poor decision-making that led to bad outcomes.

Practise makes perfect

Creating situational awareness is where the military excel and many of us could take lessons from their disciplined approach and the value placed by Generals on excellent assessment and analysis of the information available to:

  • give them the information they need and no more
  • provide an understanding of the context
  • allow them to do what they are there for – make decisions.

The military achieve this by conducting as much immersive training as they can, even for troops who have been repeatedly in action over many years.  In reality, businesses cannot do this.  However, they can ensure that rehearsal and simulation is an accepted and recognisably important part of their training programme and include senior executives to understand their “style” and needs before a real crisis hits.

To provide true situational awareness takes all elements of an organisation’s crisis response structure working with understanding and in an integrated fashion, to allow rapid flow of information and updates, synthesis and analysis, keeping only the important facts and building an understanding of “what this all means” rather than simply providing a story of what has happened so far.

Constantly asking “so what” means that each fact is challenged for its value,  forcing out the irrelevant and building those important facts with analysis of why they matter.

In the end, it is really all about context.  All crises have a wider context and to be well managed, this must be understood.  The ‘situation’ is not yours alone and will always involve a wider audience.

For more information on managing information in the heat of a crisis, please see the following blog posts:

Managing the upward flow of information in a crisis – what matters most?

Joining the crisis dots – how simulation exercising can create a culture of crisis sensitivity

About Dominic Cockram

Founder and MD of Steelhenge. Pioneer of simulation exercises with over 20 years experience in business continuity and crisis management. Dominic is an experienced speaker determined to make the world a more resilient place.

4 thoughts on “Situational Awareness – supporting the CEO’s critical decision-making in a crisis

  1. Excellent post. Too often, organisations of significant size and responsibility seem to think that a comms person feeding in the latest media output and writing statements at particular times constitutes crisis comms when it’s actually part of the wider crisis management effort. An effort that should be rooted in, as you state, anticipation, preparation and practice. To a large extent how well organisations approach this reflects their relative levels of corporate emotional intelligence and their ability therefore to develop adequate situational awareness.

  2. Dominic – this is a great post! The foundational value of SA is that leaders need it to make critical decisions. Your 10 items that SA should include are great! These are not only critical to business leaders but to public safety/emergency services as well, where we sometimes struggle with accomplishing quality SA. I think the most significant hurdle is identifying what information is important for others to know, who to get it to, and when. Of course that information needs to be timely, relevant, and accurate – especially if someone is going to act from it. TR

    • Thanks Tim for your valuable comments. It seems to be a real challenge for organisations to get the right information to the right place.

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