Crises require quick decisions. However, there’s a couple of things about decisions that need to be in place before a decision can be effective:

A) A good awareness of the current situation and the potential subsequent consequences that follow from it. In other words, we need to know about the here & now, and we need to have some insight in the near future.

B) A goal. A problem that the decision needs to solve. A clearly stated desired end result. This seems obvious, but the entire team needs to be aware of it, not just the chairman who makes the decision and who delegates the tasks to his team members.

Both items can be summarized as ‘Team Situational Awareness’ (TSA). The word ’Team’ needs to be emphasized here, as partial situational awareness leads to misunderstandings, confusion, delay in decisions, doubling of tasks or worse: assuming that someone else was responsible, leading to non-performance of the task.

Example: During an exercise, the chairman of a crisis team briefed his team during a kick off meeting about the current situation. He and his incident manager were aware of a confirmed railroad accident on a marshalling yard involving transport of nuclear material. The incident has been in the news. Some containers owned by their company happened to be on the same marshalling yard at the time of the incident, and those containers later appeared to be contaminated with radioactive material. The briefing to the team however was incomplete and the news item about the confirmed accident on the marshalling yard was left out, so half the team only knew about a possible and vague health risk to their employees involving exposure to alleged radiation source which did not seem very likely under normal circumstances. This led to a split situational awareness within the team: the chairman and incident manager wanted to start communicating to the crew and their families explaining the reason for anti-radiation (Iodine) tablets and a precautionary health check. The PR department and HR departments were not convinced of the cause of the threat and held back all communication to the employees preventing unnecessary unrest based on assumptions. This resulted that the crew of the company was deliberately not informed about their possible exposure to a health risk, while part of the team had confirmed information about the threat.

How can we prevent lack of decisions or wrong decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate TSA?

TSA is defined as: “the Perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and pace, the Comprehension of their meaning, and the Projection of their status in the near future[1]”. So, we need to perceive what’s going on. The facts/data have to reach us, and we need to actively collect them. Secondly, we need to comprehend it’s meaning and transform the raw data into information. Lastly, we need to project this information into the near future and understand what it will mean to us.

Translated into some simple steps: 1. What information do we need? 2. What does that information mean to us? 3. What do we think that will happen? Or, in a mnemonic: What, So What, Now What?


To complete step 1, you’ll need to identify the outstanding ‘Question marks’: saying out loud what you don’t know. To complete step 2, you’ll need to process the incoming data and create an overview. This is best done by making it visible: plot available information on white boards, and create ’chunks’ – order the information by department. The last step is overviewing the plotted situation and make a PEAR.RL[2] threat analysis.

Step 1 and 2 will give you an answer to ’A’ from my opening statement (a good awareness of the current situation), step 3 will give you an insight in ’B’, the goal that needs working towards.

In our example, where the cause of the potential health risk to the employees was unclear to some of the team members, ’A’ was missing. As a consequence, the set goal (preventing health issues by communication, and handing out tablets to the crew) was not accepted by some. Because ’What’ was missing, it resulted in the ’So What’ being questionable. The ’Now what’-solution was prevented by internal conflict.

In this exercise, a big difference could have been made, if the chairman ’published’ all available information: Display the news article, display what the symptoms of radiation sickness are and display the number of people exposed to the source. Use whiteboards, projectors and other visual media. When this information is made visual for the entire team, it’s easy to connect the dots, come up with a collective conclusion and start to make decisions.

Failing to do a proper PEAR.RL threat analysis (the ’B’ is missing) will give the opposite result: understanding that the current situation may be very bad indeed but not having an overview of all its ramifications. Again, resulting in poor TSA and thus poor or lacking decisions.

Decisions without TSA – it’s like serving Tomato Soup[3] without the tomatoes: Awful.


[1] Endsley, 1988

[2] PEAR.RL: People, Environment, Asset, Reputation and later: Revenue and Legal&Liability

[3] Tomato soup is generally not eaten while still boiling. Take some time to let it cool down a bit. That gives you the time to check if the tomatoes are actually in the soup: Do I have the facts? Take the time to establish proper TSA

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