Situation awareness

The monitoring process, known technically as 'situation awareness', is a key feature of this method of problem solving because, in effect, it enables the problem to be largely solved before it arises. In situation awareness, a person finds salient features of their environment, locates them and notes their current state and behaviour, decides on their immediate significance with respect to what’s going on, tries to predict what they’ll do later and how that will affect future plans. This is nothing special—we do it every day and only become aware of it when it fails. An expert real-world problem solver (and good leader) has a background process continually in play which notes, sizes up and anticipates. In this way, there is a constant sorting and rating of more or less pre-programmed possible courses of action going on so that, when action becomes necessary, the action plan has been under development for some time.

An expert real world problem solver has a consistent set of characteristics:

  • a willingness to assume leadership
  • an ability to maintain situation awareness
  • an ability to take controlled risks, through self confidence and self awareness
  • emotional stability
  • decisiveness
  • experience.

The importance of each of these becomes apparent when we consider ways in which problem solving can break down. First, a solution is of no value unless it is implemented. This feature illustrates the point that the leader is not always the person in charge. Often the assuming of leadership lasts only as long as it takes to ensure that an appropriate solution is adopted and that implementation has begun. It may also last as long as it takes to deal with the problem and its aftermath.

A failure of situation awareness may result in important things being ignored and emerging as shocks later in the process. Situation awareness may be distorted by expectations, so that changes and events may be interpreted as being better than they really are. This leads to an underestimation of the emerging difficulty of the problem and an inadequate response. Here, a good sense of self awareness is essential so that feelings of comfort and complacency can be detected and the state of the environment assessed realistically with a clear mind.

The ability to let go of feelings of comfort in a difficult situation requires a good deal of self confidence. If a solution to a problem was begun, and subsequently left to run its pre-planned course without ongoing evaluation, the solution may become irrelevant as circumstances change. Self confidence, decisiveness and the ability or willingness to take controlled risks is important, because the expert problem solver adjusts the process under way and then stands back to observe their effects.

There are two ways in which problems are not solved effectively: by solving the wrong problem correctly, or by solving the right problem wrongly. Avoiding these two errors can only come as the result of experience. Experience is either learned (often the hard way) or taught. The price of experience is being involved directly in the solution of a problem.

There are many ways to learn about problem solving. These include formal training, listening to considered accounts of others’ experiences, and practise in dealing with the sorts of problems that may be encountered on a trip. All of these are encouraged, and all may help you to gain experience and to add to your readily available solutions.