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CONFLICT

3 Steps to Handle a Crisis Like a Fighter Pilot

By compartmentalizing and addressing a problem on a triage basis your business can emerge from disaster unscathed.
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When I was born in 1970 my father was a flight surgeon with the U.S. Air Force. One of the lessons that has stayed with me from my father's experience in the Air Force is how fighter pilots are taught to deal with crisis. Why? Because it is a lesson that transcends survival in the air and can be used in every aspect of your life and business. When we are presented with a crisis situation, here are the steps that I always use to work my way through the problem.

1. Don't Panic

The first rule is often the most difficult to learn: never panic. This can take years of practice and often involves shifting or muting personality traits. When we panic our mind races. It becomes cloudy and rational decisions are harder to come by. Consequently, poor decisions, or even worse, no decisions at all, may be made. As such, you must teach yourself that with every challenge there either is, or is not, a solution and that you must calmly go through the following two steps to resolve the crisis.

2. Compartmentalize

Once you have identified what the problem is take time to segment out what could be the possible root causes and the potential solutions. Think broadly about everything that could be linked to the problem and have any causal effect on it. Then compartmentalize each one of those potential targets and begin the progression set forth below.

3. Analyze Progressively

Methodically search for a solution by progressively analyzing the potential compartmentalized issues. In short, be it a mental list you have created or a written list, go through each potential cause testing your hypothesis about each until a solution presents itself.

How does this work in application?

In 1972 one of my father's friends in his fighter wing was flying a mission over Northern Vietnam. During his mission his aircraft was severely damaged by enemy fire. As the wing turned and headed back to base his ability to control his aircraft was diminishing by the minute due to damage to his tail and, to make matters worse, one of his two engines was on fire threatening to ignite his main fuel tank thus ending his mission in a very abrupt and permanent fashion. If he ejected over Northern Vietnam he would be captured and sent to a prison camp, not something that was very appealing at the time.

So what did he do? First, per his training, he didn't panic. He could eject, but he hung on to compartmentalize his issues and progressively analyze his options. His goal was clear: get the aircraft to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, so that when he ejected he could be recovered by friendlies and not by the Northern Vietnamese.

Second, he compartmentalized. His primary issues were 1) a loss of control of the aircraft by and through damage to the primary flight systems, 2) progressive loss of altitude due to the damage to one of his engines, and 3) the risk of the fire reaching his main fuel tank and the aircraft suffering a final and catastrophic failure prior to his being able to eject.

Third, he progressively analyzed his options and set a course of action. He had enough flight control remaining that he could at least nose the jet towards the DMZ. Then, in addressing the other two issues he powered down and cut fuel to the engine on fire in an effort to starve the flames long enough to buy him enough time to get to the DMZ.

Finally, he calculated his altitude loss rate quickly in his head against the distance to the DMZ and his crippled speed to determine that he could make it provided the jet did not erupt in flames prior to his objective bail out point.

So did it work? Fortunately, yes. He piloted the damaged aircraft, losing altitude all of the way, with almost no ability steer the same, to the DMZ. Moments after he crossed the line he pulled the lever on his seat ejecting him out of the cockpit and into the sky over Vietnam. As his parachute deployed and the shock of hitting the air alleviated he watched his plane burst into flames moments before it disappeared into the dense jungle below. He was picked up by friendlies and returned to base by the end of the day.

So how does this apply in business?

Many years ago I was sitting at the desk of one of my first companies. The lights began to flicker on my side of the office. No big deal I thought until the power to all of our computers began shutting down because of these intermittent power issues. To make matters worse, the flickering eventually turned into long blackout periods randomly occurring without warning. For every minute we were without power we were losing money. Eventually the periods became one long period as the lights went out and did not go back on. What could we do?

First, we didn't panic. We had to keep calm and figure out what was going on with an eye on getting power back as soon as possible so the company could function. Second, we compartmentalized our primary issues: 1) How do we get power to our office as quickly as possible? 2) How do we figure out what the problem actually is? 3) How do we solve it?

Next, we went through our progressive analysis to address the situation. We quickly noted that a neighboring floor, and all of the other floors in the building, had power. So while I went and explained the situation to our downstairs neighbors asking for a little help, another team was dispatched to Home Depot to buy numerous long extension cords. Within the hour we had re-powered our floor with temporary power borrowed by our neighbors by simply running the cords throughout the building.

Next, we needed to address the larger issue of figuring out why we had dropped power.  After consulting with three electricians, the power company, as well as the electrical equipment's manufacturers on the issue, the problem was finally discovered and repaired. It was simply a loose connection at the main breaker for our office in the power distribution room.

But by employing these three simple steps we had the power back on in our office within one hour. The larger fix took two weeks. If we would have panicked and lost focus a two-week inability to conduct business would probably have spelled the end of our company. But by compartmentalizing and addressing each issue on a triage basis our business barely missed a beat.

So the next time you have a crisis in your business just think, what would a fighter pilot do?

IMAGE: BigStock
Last updated: May 13, 2013

MATTHEW SWYERS | Columnist | Founder, The Trademark Company

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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