Making Decisions During Terror, a Personal Sober Analysis

on August 29, 2016

This is the most difficult post I ever had to write. It has been a little over a month since my hometown, Nice, has been the scene of horrific events. While these images will never leave me, I need to move on and focus on a rational analysis of what happened. Otherwise, I might lose my mind. I was there. I had a split of a second to make decisions. It seemed like an eternity, but it wasn’t — I heard on TV that the whole deadly ride only lasted 45 seconds. I look back now, and I try to make sense of how I made these decisions, and whether I could have made better decisions.

One thing for sure is that I could not have stopped this attack from happening. I wish I could have, but let’s be realistic. Maybe if I could control peace on Earth, it would not have happened. Maybe if I could control the weather, I would have turned the few drops of rain that night into a storm. Maybe if I had super powers, I could have jumped in front of the truck like Superman and stop it with one hand.

I don’t want to get into a political analysis of what the French Government could have done to make the place more secure. Keep in mind that it was Bastille day, and every large city to small village was celebrating. We were happy that the Euro 2016 soccer cup had been safe, and we did not anticipate anything bad. It was another Bastille day like so many before. It was a day of celebration and happiness.

Luck plays a role

I want to start with the role of luck in the decisions we make. It would be foolish to ignore that luck exists and influences our bottom line. In my case, the bottom line is that I am alive. I certainly do not wish any of you to be trapped into such a terrible event. Instead, you can assume in this parallel to a business situation that the bottom line is akin to your business performance: increased revenue, decreased fraud and abuse, improved customer satisfaction, or better compliance to regulations. You can pick any scenario that makes sense in your world. I will keep the focus of this article on my objective to get out of there alive with my family.

Let me share the painful details of that day. I had a fantastic evening up to that point. I was with my family: my kids, my mom, my brother, my cousin, etc. It was eleven of us. We ate out; we watched the fireworks. It was beautiful. We walked up the stairs from the beach to the Promenade des Anglais. Then came the decision that changed everything.

Should we go to the Prom Party?

For the celebration, several stages on wheels feature bands of different styles. We can follow the one we like, or stay put and dance to the various artists. It is a lot of fun. For some reason, I decided to go home with my kids. My cousin decided to go dancing. We split the group in half, and left in two different directions. My group faced the truck and could get out of the way. The other group got hit in the back. Three of the people I loved the most died instantly — my aunt, my cousin and her partner. 81 other people died that night. Two more have died since.

I could pat myself in the back for making the right decision, but let’s face it… It was luck that drove me to head home. I had no warning sign of what was going to happen, and I could very well have made the choice to go to the Prom Party. Without any context, you can’t really make an educated decision. You can call it luck, or you can call it my guardian angel. That day, my shoe broke, so I was uncomfortable enough to give up dancing. The three drops of rain we felt, and kids that needed a bathroom contributed to my decision. None of these reasons were true indication of what was to happen. It was just luck.

While luck exists, luck is not a sound decision-making strategy. The point of this article is to explore the decisions that followed, and how we could learn from that painful experience.

Quick decisions in the heat of the moment

When we saw the truck, we did not understand what was happening. How could anyone expect a truck to come at the tail end of the fireworks to run through the crowd? It took me a little while to connect the dots. It seems like it was a long time, however it was quite fast. Biology is a fascinating thing. The adrenaline pumped into my veins gave me that super power. The whole scene happened in slow motion before my very eyes. It gave me time to think and make conscious decisions.

First of all, I tried to analyze what I was seeing. I thought that there was no driver in the truck that was zigzagging onto the Promenade. I looked inside the cabin, and witnessed the determined driver. It became immediately clear that we were all at risk. I pulled my boys to the side, where we watched the truck pass us by, just a few yards away. From the lucky decision to walk back home, followed the calculated decision to step aside, where we were protected by the palm trees.

While I am not convinced that any business context could trigger a rush of adrenaline, it is probably not required to survive business decisions. Fortunately. The first lesson from this night is to look for data. The data that is available may not be enough. I had to actively look for more context to help me understand the situation. I was seeking information when I looked inside the truck. Luckily for us, the information was exactly what I needed to make the right set of decisions from that point on.

That is a lesson that is absolutely applicable in business. When the data you have is not sufficient, pull more data to help you make a better decision.

Making decisions for the wrong reasons

Once it was all too clear what was going on, we faced a new decision. Should we stay or should we go?

I was afraid for the group that left in the opposite direction, and wanted to find them. That being said, I was also holding the hand of each one of my boys in my hands. I wanted to go home to keep them safe. I looked for more data in a flash. Terrorists. Big truck. I figured out it could be filled with explosives. I had to save my kids first and foremost.

So, we left at a frisky pace. We walked all the way back home without saying much. There was no explosive in the truck. We heard a few gun shots, but no big explosion, thanks God!

I made the right decision I have been told, but it was made for the wrong reasons. When you anticipate possible outcomes and make a decision based on that, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It feels like a bad thing for me when I think about that night, because I wish I had been able to go back and save them. The truth is I could not have saved them even if I had looked for them right then and there.

Under uncertainty, when the data you look at is not complete nor correct, you can still make the right decisions. One technique we apply in the industry is sensitivity analysis. We look at the different scenarios under different hypothesis. While one candidate decision making strategy can outperform all others under normal circumstances, it could be too tightly correlated with the set of circumstances and could perform terribly in one of these other scenarios.

What is the right thing to do, anyway?

Going back to check on my family might have been that ‘right thing to do’ strategy… Given the circumstances, it could have been disastrous in this instance. Well, if the truck had been filled with explosives, it would obviously have added us to the long list of victims. What I have been told at the victim center numerous times is that I saved the boys from a greater trauma.

When looking at the business performance of a business strategy, we can look at the immediate results: Was the policy accepted? Are we increasing revenue? But the short term results do not always mean long term success. Accepting business from a fraudster can lead to huge deficit eventually. In my case, I felt horrible about the short term decision when I was back home not able to reach any of them over the phone… But looking at the bigger picture, seeing the Promenade covered with dead bodies would have been disastrous to my boys, probably to me too.

Sad conclusion

I am heartbroken by the events that happened that day. In order to keep my own sanity, I keep focusing on these decisions I made that night. I shared a few of them with you today. There is a French saying “a shared happiness is a double happiness; a shared pain is half a pain”.

Decisions are made every day. While this blog typically focuses on business decisions, there is no reason to ignore that our decision-making process can the same for personal decisions as well.

The terrible lessons learned that night are:

  • luck exists, but is not a strategy
  • look for more data when there is no sufficient data available
  • weigh the benefit of your strategy against different scenarios
  • do not focus only on short term gain; look for long term performance

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