On Sept 11th, 2001 the world changed in an instant when Osama bin Laden decided to use commercial jets as weapons, killing thousands in a matter of minutes.
Everything changed overnight, people were in mourning, 430,000 jobs were lost in New York City alone, the emotional shock of the events and the fear it engendered woke up the world to the threat of terrorism.
For businesses, insurance rates skyrocketed, the stock market crashed for a few weeks, and a few airlines went bankrupt.
… and then, there was the war in Afghanistan where thousands of US, British, Canadians and Afghans died.
Even up in the mountains where my little software company was nestled, the shock hit us hard. Our customers realized the market crash and industry affects were going to hit them, so they started calling us they were going to cancel our coding contracts.
Contracts often have a line in them called “Force Majeur” which spells out how each party has the right to break a contract when the world has gone mad, when a natural or unnatural disaster like war has hit.
And on one day in October, 2001, I sat with my head in my hands at my desk, wondering how my company was going to survive, how I’d handle bankrupcy and if the business survived, how could I possibly keep my staff without firing everyone and defaulting on my office?
I had brought some excellent programmers to Canada from Ukraine in 2000 and now just over a year later, I was going to have to tell them that they’d have to go back because they hadn’t been in Canada long enough for permanent residency.
Mr. Vachon showed up as he did every week and sensed the mood in the office was sombre. He asked me what was happening and I told him that I probably wasn’t going to be able to pay him after this week because all of our customers were going to cancel their contracts.
With a twinkle in his eye, he looked at me with the care of a kind Grandfather, but one who had managed 18 companies during his life and for him, the hurdle that I was facing was just another one of life’s challenges.
He said, “let me tell you a story”.
“There was once a British pilot who flew in World War II and while pilots around him in other aircraft kept getting shot and crashing, he was notable for surviving every mission and attaining a very high kill rate. Eventually this did not go unnoticed and his commanders asked him to train the other pilots.”
“He told them the secret that I will now tell you. This is a skill, that if you should master it, will get you out of any situation such as the one you are in right now. Until your dying day, you will quickly see that you are in charge of your own life and your own destiny”
“The pilot told them — Your brains are filled with too many thoughts when you fly, you need to fine tune the way that you think, to minimize your thoughts to what is truly important. There is a procedure that you must follow over and over again, and then you will survive.
To remember the procedure, remember the acronym ‘SOS’. No, not “save our ships”. I’m not talking about the Mayday call, in your brain SOS is NOT an emergency.
From now on, it stands now for Situation, Objective, Strategy.
Say that over to yourselves — Situation, Objective, Strategy and never forget it.
When you’re flying, ask yourself — “what is the situation that is happening to me at this instant in time”.
Perhaps the Luftwaffe is diving at you from 10,000 feet, perhaps you are running low on fuel, perhaps you are in attack mode, or someone is attacking you….know your SITUATION, and everything that is important to fly your aircraft.
Now ask yourself — “what are my objectives?, What do I want to happen?”
Get those objectives in your head quickly — it might be that you want to attack an aircraft, or leave the area,get fuel, or hide.
Know what it is that YOU, the pilot want to see happen!
Finally, develop a strategy to make that happen. You know the situation, you know your objectives, so what will you do to make those objectives real?
You only have seconds to go through this, so you need to think fast, think clearly and limit how far you can think it through. If you’re on the ground, perhaps you have hours to plan and strategize, but in the air, only seconds.
So get it quick — what is happening, what should happen, what will I do?
Situation, objective, strategy.
S — O — S
You’re being attacked from above, you need to get away from the bullets, so you can roll, descend, gain altitude….whatever you do it’s fine…and you know what will happen then?
You’ll be in a new situation.
You may be in less or more danger, but the situation will have changed, and you will now need again to say “what is my new situation? what is my new objective? what is my new strategy?”
Keep that going for the duration of the mission…and frankly, for the duration of tyour life.
No-one can guarantee that all your strategies will work, nor that all your objectives will be met…. that’s life. However YOU will have control over your life because those decisions you make will be yours, and you will live with them”
The cycle will repeat over and over again. The only promise SOS makes is that you will always be in a different situation everytime you execute the loop, and with good intention, a better one.
When JC told me this, the story definitely lifted my spirits and gave me hope, but I didn’t quite understand how this war story fit into my life. He started another JC mantra - “Situation, Objective, Strategy” and asked me to say it a few times (and many more times for years after).
(Note that from that point on, if I ever had a problem the first question from his mouth was predictable: ”So, did you SOS it?”)
“Yeah, okay so thanks JC, I got the new mantra, so how does this apply to me?” - I asked.
“Well, what’s your current situation, what’s worrying you?”
I told him about our customers in Canada and Silicon Valley warning us they were going to cancel their contracts, the lack of anyone doing new contracts, and that everyone was expecting at least a year of economic depression before things turned around.
He said, “Great! so you know your situation!”
Now what are your objectives?
I had never really thought in terms of “objectives”, I knew about Goals, as JC insisted I read my 5 goals every day, but they were generally pretty long-term.
At the moment I couldn’t really think of an objective. I said I guess I’d like to somehow keep the business going which was in my mind a pretty weak and unlikely objective to achieve.
He asked - “If the world was working in your favor, what would you like to see happen?”.
“Well, I’d like my customers to all come back, and I’d like to have more customers, and I wish I had more time to figure things out so I could build the business back.
I’d like my programmers to be able to stay in Canada and ultimately I’d like to meet my payroll this week”.
Okay so, take one objective - “I’d like my customers to all come back”, what could you do that would bring them back?
He twinkled…I kind of grew to be a little worried whenever he twinkled because it made me feel more like the know-nothing mentee I truly was, but on the other hand I’d learned that a twinkle meant an important paradigm-shifting lesson was being imparted.
“Well, my customers are going to have less money, so they’re cutting back their expenses, and they won’t be able to afford us”.
“Why can’t they afford you?” - he asked.
“Because we have to earn a profit, and we’re not cheap”.
“You said your objective was to get your customers back, is that your objective, or is it to earn a profit?”
And suddenly it clicked. I saw the strategy, I hadn’t seen it because my objectives had been locked in with the past.
This was NOT a time for profit, this was a time to survive.
“You know, I bet my customers are thinking like I am, they’re probably all worried and frazzled by everything that’s happening right now. In a year if they fire us, they’re not going to have a product to sell and they’ll be in worse shape than they are now. If they invest in the technology they’ll come out on top, of they don’t, they’ll go bankrupt.”
So, that day I came up with a plan to offer my customers what I told them was the “offer of a lifetime”. I would charge them exactly my cost to run my company and not a cent more, for the next 6 months. No profit, in fact my unique selling proposition on that day was “I wan’t profit, but you will”.
I called each customer with that offer and explained that if they invested in us developing their products, they’d be paying rock bottom to have the work done, and when this economic crisis was over, they’d have technology that none of their competitors would have, and our developers would still be around to support their product.
Honestly, I had nothing to lose, and the phone calls were very quick.
Everyone had to “think about it”. I let everyone know there was not much time to think about it because we’d have to close very soon.
I had enough cash for one last payroll.
My staff knew all about it, and that day we sat around our companies most precious asset - our espresso machine — and had coffee and discussed what we’d do if the company closed.
Then, one by one - they ALL called. The phone rang, and each customer agreed to continue the contract “for six months” at my firesale rate.
In the weeks that followed, SOS did indeed become my mantra as though I had a much smaller budget to operate with, I was flush with the wealth of my imagination which was now dreaming up new objectives and strategies every day.
In the years that followed, I realized more about the value of the SOS approach — the simple 3 step method. It is actually the core of all human thinking, most people just don’t realize it. It’s the core of every business planning method on earth - SWOT, 6 Thinking Hats, Hoshin Planning, PESTLE, VRIO.. all of them… because it’s how you think alreaedy, it’s just that most people never fine tune how it works in their heads.
For running a business, there are lots of situational awareness “techniques”. You can learn by using tools like SWOT (what is your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Or perhaps VRIO - (value, rarity, imitability and organization)
To understand “situation” you can use whatever framework best addresses your needs. Sometimes you need input from many people to fully understand a situation, to wrap your head around it. Sometimes, you need to act quickly and focus only on certain elements of the situation.
Your “objectives” are your wants, desires, the vision of the future you’d like to see.
It may happen it may not, but you need to know — what DO YOU WANT TO SEE HAPPEN? It’s criticial, but most people are afraid (as I was and sometimes still am) to fail. Or, we fear that our objective vision for the future is too incongruous with “real life”, so that it can’t be achieved…so we don’t even bother to acknowledge we have it.
To know your own objectives, you really need to look at your values - what do you consider to be the “right thing to do?”. What are your moral values, what are your business values? The more you know about your values, the easier it is to develop your objectives.
For that guy in World War II, he valued survival quite highly so it framed many of his objectives, but he was also at war at the time, and concerned about the survival of his country so he had military objectives in mind, too.
Know yourself, know your values…and you’ll have an easy time with objectives.
But then, there’s the tricky part — strategy.
What are you willing to do to make each objective happen? Of course you have to actually EXECUTE on a strategy, that goes without saying. Otherwise nothing will change.
I know in some situations I’m really good at developing strategies. In fact, it’s probably a real strength in me. I have adult ADHD so my brain is loaded with ideas anyways, many of them quite lateral so brainstorming comes easy to me.
However, I know my limits. I am not an economist, I am not an accountant, not a lawyer… and sometimes you need to simply know your situation, know your objectives and find yourself an expert strategist.
When you do that, you can delegate SOS.
As a side note, some people use the term “tactics” for short term things they need to do to achieve somethihng and “strategy” for longer term braoder plans they need to do to achieve something. Whatever term you prefer, go ahead use…but SOS sounds clearer to me than “SOT”.
To finish up the story, our customers paid us the minimum, our business survived, our programmers got their permanent residency, and we had the time to develop new strategies that provided years of software development projects and an exciting business. We created new products, and we strategicallly linked our customers together so that all our customers grew and prospered.
And for the 15 years, I could always count on JC calling me up to “SOS” a new situation.