Transforming Risk Mitigation into Adaption
Gaddafi was dead, albeit recently. The employees at the energy plant where we were had heard the coalition fighters on bombing attacks only months ago. CASS Global, along with the client, were currently suffering the fallout of the so called “Arab Spring”. Commercial operations, such as this one, set up under the auspices of former dictators, were, if nothing else, secure. That had all vanished in the blink of an eye with the onset of political freedom throughout most of North Africa. The wind swept compound where we found ourselves was a bad place to be, by any measurable standard. Libya was 12 kilometers away and was currently the largest open air arms depot in the world. All you had to do was drive in and take it away. This was in fact being done on a massive scale by every radical group with an axe to grind with anybody. Law had ceased to exist in Libya, although the West was still held in a fairly favorable light.
Libyan Gas Smugglers
The Mediterranean was hours away to the North, accessible only via a tangled web of backroads and very unfriendly cities if you happened to be a Westerner. Only weeks before the American Embassy had been sacked in the Capitol city.
The only other border was with Algeria. The Algeria that had, only weeks before, seen the slaughter of nearly 100 expatriates at a similar gas facility. The expats had been attacked by a terrorist group and the Algerian Army had botched the rescue. Tanks and heavy artillery are not the tool of choice for surgical hostage rescue missions. We considered the host nation Army to be equally incompetent.
On a more personal note, we were there because the local employees, in attendance with the local unemployed, had recently stormed the compound, climbing over barbed wire fences and making off with a considerable quantity of whatever was not bolted to the floors.
It was part threat, part blackmail, and part the result of new found liberty, where the unemployed were now empowered to press the West (who had unlimited budgets of course) for ludicrous increases in wages. All the ingredients for future violence were present and growing in size.
This was the situation confronting CASS Global upon arrival. This time we were not there to broker peace, nor to conduct an audit geared towards reinforcing the status quo. We were there to develop a plan to extract them all, in the wee hours of the night, should the situation turn catastrophic. The day before we arrived more than 400 protestors had rioted at the front gate. Our client was unarmed, the local militia was part of the problem, and friendly faces numbered fewer than 60.
The rest of the story should be a lesson in hard headed reality for the reader. Additionally, it should give pause to every CEO who reads this, to allow him to ponder how HIS company would react if confronted with a similar situation. In terms of crisis management, this blog is a goldmine of resources.
At the end of several days, here were the choices presented by us:
- Do nothing. Maintain the status quo and hope it all goes away. CASS Global does not tender hope as a viable course of action. Amazingly, those MOST in support of this option were those who were actually in country. This was because they had adapted to the course of events over time, were well positioned financially, and all suffered from an “It can’t happen to me” mindset. Once VP, after physically watching the American School burning down and being hit with tear gas, wondered if he should perhaps send his daughter somewhere else? The lesson here is to accept reality for what it is and stop dreaming about what the situation WAS.
- Evacuate everybody now. Shut it down and eat the loss. This represented the “get out while you can” approach. The drama with this was the government was a huge unknown at the time, and could swing either way. If it regained control the company forfeited millions in lost production. And no CEO wants to tell the board you pulled the plug on a “maybe”. So that route was closed. The plant would stay open until the risk was unacceptable. “Unacceptable” is a slippery word and has different meanings to different folks, usually based upon your distance from violence and the likelihood of having it fall on your head.
- Aerial evacuation if the government fell. We didn’t like it because it would take days to organize, was dicey in terms of flying through uncontrolled airspace, and required a landing strip we did not possess. A good pilot with the right airframe can land it on a smooth highway (the military does it all the time) but that implies you can control that strip of highway. We could not guarantee this as they were armed and we were not. This was popular with the board because it looked easy and rapid, and did not cost anything until they had to push the button.
- Evacuate overland into Algeria. This was not seriously considered, especially in light of the recent massacre of Westerners. There are easier ways of committing suicide than “escaping” into Algeria.
- Evacuate overland into Libya. What with all the popular Western press describing the current anarchy in Libya, this was also demonized by the board.
That was it. There was nothing else to say. One of those five was going to represent the rescue effort for dozens of men, trapped a long way from home, if the government collapsed.
This is not the forum for a blog on decision making, group dynamics, litigation, corporate fallout, etc. All that is necessary for the reader to comprehend is the following:
- To do nothing was not acceptable, for a multiplicity of reasons.
- To evacuate everyone now was equally unacceptable, also for a multiplicity of reasons.
- Of the remaining three options, the aerial evacuation remained the firm favorite
CASS Global was now faced with the unpopular task of suggesting/creating the best plan to keep 60 people alive if the bottom fell out.
Our view was different. The reader should remember the following:
- The little guy with the boots on the ground usually has the best picture of his 12 square feet of the universe, and probably understands it better than the guys in the ivory towers 12,000 miles away.
- If you have three options, and you KNOW two of them will NOT work, then your task is actually simplified. You are in the enlightened position of being able to dedicate all your assets into making the unknown #3 into a mission viable product.
We knew that:
- Algeria was not possible. Finished
- Air evacuation, for a number of reasons, was highly unlikely. The simplest, (and the deal breaker) was time. It would take days to organize. Our guys would have minutes, perhaps an hour or two if they were lucky. If you are holding your breath underwater, you need rescue in seconds, not days. It doesn’t matter how big the straw is for the drowning man if he is already dead by the time you get there. Regardless of how sexy it was to some, it wasn’t going to work. Finished.
So we were going to “escape” into Libya. Simple as that.
It is now necessary to step sideways into a different anecdote to illuminate a point. When the movie “Jaws” first came to the big screen, millions of otherwise intelligent human beings vowed never to go swimming in the Ocean again. It didn’t matter that your odds of becoming a Great White’s dinner was something akin to your odds of being kidnapped by aliens. Now that same person, if you told him that 33,561 people were killed in the US in motor vehicle accidents in 2012, would not blink an eye as he slid behind the wheel of his sedan to go to work. So our perception of risk actually diminishes as we spend more time around the point of danger. Which is why those residing in the country thought they were safe. The unknown is always more frightening than the known.
Libya was the great unknown. We spoke to the border guards, who were terrified of the place. Except that none of them had actually been there. Libya was the vast, great bogeyman, encompassing all things evil and bad. They had become the Great White sharks of North Africa, and all feared to tread there.
Though the CASS Global approach may sound counter-intuitive, we disagreed. Fluid environments, when coupled with a lack of disciplined policy, (both of which described Libya perfectly in the first few post Gaddafi months) are ripe for exploitation in terms of what we needed to do. We would go this way for nobody else thought it logical or would dare to follow us. For we were venturing into the void.
In retrospect, it sounds all rather anti-climactic. It was a very straightforward event. Armed with the appropriate resources conducive to such operations, we walked into the border post (pictured) and left an hour later with all the documentation required for what we wanted to do. For additional consultations we were able to acquire the services of the Officer in charge of the Post. Personally. He would be more than happy, based on a per diem rate, to assist with any logistical operations he may be called upon to help with. Payment on completion.
Libyan Border Post
There remained but one phase of the mission. We needed to test drive it, to prove it a viable option. So the next day, we hopped in a vehicle and drove the precise route we expected to cover should the need arise. We were loaded exactly the way we anticipated, albeit using sand bags to replace humans. We were very concerned with the ability of the desert to support our vehicles, for the Libyan sand is notoriously treacherous to traverse.
The Libyan desert. Will it support the weight of vehicles?
It worked. We connected with the highway, met our Officer, and spent the afternoon zooming around Libya. We encountered no bogeymen, no dragons, and no Great White Sharks. That they are there is not in doubt, but we can swim fast as well and it’s a big Ocean.
In this case it wasn’t really about Mitigating Risk as much as Adapting to Risk. It is always a part of the equation. But when all other options are 100% bad, then taking a chance on a 50% proposition looks pretty good in relative terms, yes?
The story must end here, as we are zealous about maintaining the absolute confidentiality of all clients. Suffice it to say that a member of the CASS Global team still meets with the CEO in question every month or two for breakfast. What lessons for you, the reader?
- Risk is subjective. When all other options are catastrophic, a merely “bad” choice seem appealing.
- Beware the “Jaws” syndrome. Just because those who dwell in cities believe that dragons live in the forest does not actually mean they do.
- Human beings generally like to travel/think/act as a herd. Do so at your peril for trampling is always a risk. Get away from the mass, develop room to maneuver and time to think. Go where nobody would ever think to look for you. Make them work hard to get at you and odds are they will cease and go find an easier target.
- Get small and mobile. Far better a fast convoy of a dozen SUV’s at 90mph than awaiting your fate in a fat compound that draws them in from miles away.
- Last thought. When in doubt, stop what you are doing and have a good think. Then stay calm and carry on.
Making Friends in Libya