When the situation is obscure, attack.

General Heinz Guderian


In business we talk incessantly about visions and missions and purpose and strategic objectives and important long-term type thinking to insure everyone knows where they are going and how they will go about doing it.

We worry about how to smartly, effectively, compete.

We worry about decision making.

But the truth is mostly we worry through, and about, some fairly random details, talk about being the best and doing the best and then … uhm … proceed to be and do anything but the best.

So … you know what? Maybe instead of worrying you assess the situation the best you can, trust you have a better product/offering and you get on with getting on.

I am not suggesting being stupid about competing.

Nor am I suggesting bludgeoning the industry and competitors with some dull edged hammer, however, despite all the intellectual flapping of the lips over these topics we all know the holy grail of business success is ‘windows of opportunity.’ They represent situations in emergent dynamic markets. Yeah. Windows are situations and you can only see whether a window is open or not if you have good situational awareness.

Now. Windows of opportunity arise all the time if you are paying attention.

As I have noted before ‘white space analysis’ in positioning is archaic thinking mostly because it explores a stagnant 2-dimensional industry when in reality any business in today’s world is 4 dimensional, at its most simplistic, and in its non-simplistic is actually constantly moving & a swirl of constant activity in which no one competitor is ever truly standing still.

What that means is, basically, in today’s business world you set out down a road you want to go down and seek small windows in the dynamic shifting of normal business activity to “hit the hole.” Just like a running back there is a huge mass of men & pads in front of you and you assess the patterns and go assuming a hole will open and you get through it. Separately, there are the windows that get placed in front of you. You don’t need to go looking for them – they are just there. That said. All require situational awareness. Awareness of the great situation (dynamics and patterns and trends of the environment) and the smaller situation (the finiteness of the moment itself).

Windows of opportunities come in all shapes and sizes, but the one you kill for is the opportunity for a stark contrast.

  • A stark contrast shouldn’t really come at the obvious detriment of a competitor. While a stark contrast certainly represents an opportunity to laugh at a competitor or possibly make them look foolish to do so is to miss the larger opportunity. The larger opportunity isn’t to diminish their value to make yours look bigger, but rather use a stark contrast to leverage more value for you.

  • A stark contrast really shouldn’t come at the obvious detriment of the category/industry. This one is a little tricky, but is a corollary to my first point. You don’t want to make the category look stupid or ‘less than.’ A part of how you conduct your business is protecting the larger institution. In other words, you never sacrifice the greater institution simply to try and gain a temporary advantage for yourself.

And then, of course, even if we do think those two things through well and then take that temporary advantage offered, I will note that we, in business, are incredibly poor at knowing when to quit the contrast so we keep pounding the nail into the board even though it is already all the way in. But that is a different post for another day but suffice it to say being aware of that is another feature of effective situational awareness.

But let me talk about the smaller situation for a moment.

Smaller situations are finite and, in fact, the future is NOT filled by infinite possibilities.

Now. We may have more possibilities than we think we do, but they are certainly not infinite.

In fact, possibilities in any given time and situation are quite finite in a variety of ways.

  • Time inevitably squeezes your possibilities quite often into an almost suffocating finite space.

  • Ability, or capabilities, inevitably squeezes your possibilities quite often into a fairly pragmatic sphere of finite space.

  • Context, or the situation itself, squeezes your possibilities quite often into a less than infinite, or maybe better said “a variety of different sized infinities,” choice space.

We do possibilities a huge disservice by suggesting ‘infinite.’


We do ourselves a huge disservice by suggesting ‘infinite possibilities.’

In any given situation you, and the organization, are absolutely surrounded by possibilities, but possibilities do not always lie directly ahead of you or in the direction you face. Possibilities swirl around you in a multi-dimensional fashion.

Therefore, possibilities can reside in any direction.

Therefore, in order to see all possibilities, you may not be able to rely solely on peripheral vision, but to turn around and view in a 360degree fashion <and, yes, if you turn around, I would note you are then looking forward just in a different direction>.

Therefore, in any given situation progress can reside in any direction. But this is not infinite. It just may feel like it is infinite simply because of the complexity associated with context and what your mind can realistically grasp.

Situational possibilities would be much better served if we suggested the depth & breadth available within the finite space available to us.

Anyway. ‘Situational’ tends to run into an additional problem – people like consistency.  In fact. We actually like rules. And we certainly really like some guidelines for how to do things, what to say and when things should be done. This tends to lead many of us to look to the past for answers or the ‘formula for what to do or how to act.” We want answers and, from a human nature standpoint, seek answers even more so when uncertainty increases (it creates comfort). So, we cast about the past seeking answers. Ah. That sneaky ‘learn from the past or be doomed to repeat mistakes’ advice.

True, but not true.

What makes it true? For the most part the future is always some version of the past.

What makes it not true? Context. Truths, or solutions, only partially reside in the past. The other part lives in the present and what is swirling around that moment.

We are always contextual, mosaics of the moment, and this is troubling for those seeking simple answers. Yes. Most of us would love a simple answer now & then <if not all the time>, but successful decision-making rarely lies in the simple and never in simplicity.


“We are mosaics.

Pieces of light, love, history, stars … glued together with magic and music and words. “

Anita Krizzan


Even worse, this mosaic, contextual, creates a certain intangible aspect suggesting many of these situations are ‘semi-critical moments or junctures’ which can make it nerve wracking.  To accommodate this feeling, we try and make most of our decisions as if everything is aligned and unmoving – kind of like taking a snapshot and taking action.

Uh oh. This means, contextually, whatever action or decision you take or make will be relevant to what was – not what is.


“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

Milton Friedman


** note: Institutional Knowledge. One of the most overlooked aspects in business is how ‘institutional knowledge’ is handled. The use of institutional knowledge is not found within the decision itself, but rather “what did you see” knowledge. This sensemaking knowledge isn’t used to force fit an actual decision, but rather to understand the ‘decision sight’ leading into a decision. It also isn’t meant to create some formula, but rather learn about what someone may, or may not, find important as well as it permits one to assess whether the constraints within that moment (maybe resources available or industry dynamics or whatever).


Situational awareness always has an aspect of uncertainty and uncertainty is multi-layered and inter-connected particularly so when viewing it thru organizational filters. In addition, this uncertainty is compounded on a personal level. As noted earlier, situations can be nerve wracking so it can trigger a dimension of personal uncertainty. “Personal or experienced uncertainty is at the interface between the individual and the individual’s context” says Arkin, Oleson and Carroll in 2010 research.  Situations and events trigger things in context that challenge mindsets, perceptions, beliefs and sense of self. In other words, situational awareness is challenging because of an uncertainty between the relationship of decisionmaker and decision context. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this is why many business people use data to make decisions rather than to inform decisions.

In the end situational awareness demands some version of effective sense-making, i.e., an ability to generate a plausible and coherent account of what is going on through iterative processes of information gathering, conversations, thinking and actions (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014; Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 2005). Maybe more important as an overlooked aspect is not just situational awareness skills, but sensemaking mindsets. Mental framing permits the most effective sensemaking which enables the most effective decision-making. All I really know is having situational awareness is mandatory for effective decision-making especially if you want to attack.

Written by Bruce