Why “Situational Awareness” Matters?

situational-awarenessOf course we know what “situational awareness” is. Who doesn’t?

Really? Then why is it that we find people around us who seem blissfully unaware of what’s going on around them? Look around and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Some of the most amazing insights happen in the most unexpected of places – while driving, listening to the radio, in the shower, having that first cup of coffee in the morning, or even on the pot! Most of the time I don’t have a pen and paper to capture these insights and they’re lost. But sometimes they stay. This particular insight began with a trip to the local grocery store. It was a lazy Sunday morning and we had decided to wrap up our weekly shopping first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. As we were waiting our turn to pay, I noticed the woman ahead of me empty out her shopping cart, pay, pack everything in the bags she’d brought, all this while screaming at someone over the phone. Then, once done she just merrily walked on leaving her empty cart bang in the middle of our path. Upon being requested to move it, the shocking answer we got was, “it’s not my job. Let an attendant move the cart.” After which she proceeded to sit down on a bench just a few paces away and continued screaming over the phone. She was definitely not having a good day and surely, nor was the person being yelled at. She almost ruined it for us as well. This is just one of the many instances I have observed over the years. At the airport, shopping malls, traffic on the road, in offices, restaurants, and elevators too! People are completely blind to their surroundings. This got me wondering…

While we claim to be “situationally aware,” we certainly don’t practice it a lot. I wonder why? And, is just being aware enough? This realization didn’t hit me one fine ‘enlightening’ moment; instead it has seeped in slow and gradual. It’s taken years for it to finally sink in. My ‘Aha’ moment came in the shower! Don’t get me wrong. Some amazing insights come in the shower. Here’s my theory.

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To begin with, man was a hunter-gatherer. With that life, survival was a lesson he learned very early on. There was a very real and ever present threat to his personal safety, well-being, as well as his livelihood. Whether it was not being able to find food or fighting off predators, he was always on his toes and on-guard every moment, supremely aware of his immediate surroundings. Being alert was second nature. That’s what kept him alive.

But that’s not what keeps us alive now, does it? With time and all the advances man has made in every field, he has not needed to be on alert every moment. Man became so comfortable that not only did he not need to be on the alert all the time for his survival, he also forgot the significance of staying aware of his surroundings. He no longer needed awareness for survival. Survival took on a completely different meaning. In fact, awareness is a conscious effort! Being alert at all times about our immediate surroundings even sounds exhausting. We conduct workshops on situational awareness because it is no longer second nature. And that’s what I see and observe all around me these days. I can actually picture people moving around wearing blindfolds and going about their daily lives.

Imagine a community, a people, a world where each person has developed a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings. Not just as a survival skill, but to be considerate, to follow basic rules and tenets, to know another person. To care. Imagine yourself being acutely aware of your own surroundings at the workplace. Would you be able to do a better job than you’re already doing? Would you be even more aware and conscious of the expectations of your client and easily exceed those? Would you be even more aware and conscious of the expectations of your colleague and be more caring? The answer is a resounding YES.

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Disney has been doing that as a standard practice and has managed not only to exceed guest expectations each time but also continuously evolve and invent new ways to achieve that. At the scale at which they operate it is mind-boggling to imagine how they exceed expectations of their guests each and every time! Disney calls it Practical Magic. The trick lies in acute awareness, keen observation, and minute attention to detail in everything, along with a call to action these! Thus was born the Disney Compass. There are innumerable examples of how Walt Disney had such a keen eye for everything. From the Disney hotels having two peepholes (one at a lower height for a child) to the windows at a store in a Disney theme park being at a height where a kid can look in without going up on her toes; from trash cans being placed every 27 feet (yes, they did their research on how long would a guest carry trash before disposing it off) to rides not being faster than they should; from putting in that missing shadow of Roger Rabbit in the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to a seamless transition from one theme to the next… the attention to detail is phenomenal. Disney is living proof that success depends on having a heightened sense of awareness and zeal to work on it.

Awareness is the greatest agent of change. Our survival may yet depend on it.

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