Stanislov Petrov saved the world.
And got a reprimand for his trouble.
The Cold War at a tense height, in 1983 he was manning the Soviet early-warning detector for incoming nuclear weapon attacks.
All of a sudden, his screens told him five nukes were approaching
Protocol was to immediately inform his superiors.
Yet in that moment, he realised a retaliatory strike would be launched.
The world would be destroyed.
Then he stopped to think it through.
If the Americans were going to bomb Russia, would they really send only five missiles?
Surely they’d hit them with all they’d got. Making sure of as much destruction as possible.
The message he sent up the chain of command was ‘the detector is faulty’.
It turned out he was bang on.
Mistakenly labelling low-lying cloud.
Rather than noting the sun reflecting off, misinterpreted as weaponry.
This story came to me recently through release of a book, The Irrational Ape by David Robert Grimes. Subtitled Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World. Specifically, the tale recounted by way of its three-page Prologue.
This information of ‘five incoming missiles’ required a clear action; to inform superiors.
Yet crucially he did not feel that this info was corroborated. Firstly, there were no ground radar readings suggesting such approaching menace. Secondly, only five? That didn’t compute with his belief that any attack had to be all-out in order to have any chance of success. The only explanation these pair led him to was that of machine malfunction.
This cited book also adds the allied example of Vasili Arkhipov and his similar response in the midst of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As the author surmised, he also averted instigating nuclear Armageddon as ‘to do so without complete information was the height of madness’.
Both cases share the trait of reflecting upon a partial picture. Critical thinking shines through.
The Soviet missile early warning system was known as OKO.
Many of our sales processes have a snappy acronym. And no, not the one of whichever flavour de jour of consultant, training or app vendor you may use. I’m talking about the process unique to you, which wraps around only your sales process.
Do you know what constitutes a full raft of intel?
What checks have you in place for completing such picture?
What happens when you realise gaps exist?
Make sure your process is on top of these. Don’t go OKO.