Recently I came across a situation in Argentina where we needed to fill up our car with gas, but none of the gas stations around had any. Given that we were on a road trip through Patagonia our knowledge of the local surroundings was limited to a paper map and a TomTom device with a few points of interest.
As you’ll read later on, this situation presented quite a lot of uncertainty, and my learnings on how to create certainty could be summarized like this:
- What information do we have?
- What is our current goal?
- What information do we need to achieve our goal?
- How do we get that information?
- What is our alternative plan?
It all began with our arrival at a Petrobras station in Sarmiento with a half full tank. Pretty soon it became clear that the gas station had run out of gas, but a local was quick to help out with the information that the gas station in Facundo (about 90 kilometers further in the direction that we were travelling in) had gas available and that the refill in Sarmiento wouldn’t arrive sooner than 1,5 hours. Knowing that one full tank of gas takes us approximately 440 kilometers we knew that we’d easily reach Facundo on what we had left. So, we drove the 90 kilometers to Facundo only to arrive in a town that never had a gas station (and probably never will). Yet another local in Facundo told us that we ought to travel even further along the road to Gobernador Costa, claiming that we would easily make it there with our, now quarter full tank. A quick check on the paper map revealed that the distance to Gobernador Costa was way longer than we’d manage on what gas we had left now. So we decided to drive back to Sarmiento. Slowly.
Back in Sarmiento it became apparent that the refill of the gas station had not occurred, and now we only had about 3-4 liters of fuel left in the tank.
That pretty much sets the scene. Stuck in Sarmiento:
- with 3-4 liters of fuel (consuming approximately 1 liter per 10 kilometers),
- no gas at the Petrobras station,
- no gas at the YPF station about 500 meters down the road either,
- time was about 4 pm,
- rumors of gas available at Villa Hermoso,
- an uncertain possibility to get a room at a hotel (a sign at the side of the road hinted of a hotel in Sarmiento).
There are different ways of approaching a situation like this, of which the least effective one is to act passive and resort to raising “what if…” questions. Those could be “What if there is no refill today?”, “What if we need to stay here over night?”, “What if there is no gas i Villa Hermoso?”. Basically, a lot of “What if”-s and no signs of devising a plan.
Instead of being ruled by passiveness we decided that being proactive and get an action list in order with the ambition to be able to act on it immediately would be the best thing to do. What information do we have? What is our current goal? What information do we need to achieve our goal? How do we get that information? What is our alternative plan? Breaking it down:
What information do we have?
What we knew is more or less described in the previous bullet list, so nothing more to add here.
What is our current goal?
In this case it was rather simple to answer that question: to fill up the car with gas as soon as possible. But given other circumstances (or facts) it could already have been something like “get a room for the night”.
What information do we need to achieve our goal?
This section, and the next, is probably the most interesting ones in this blog post since they aim at attacking the primary problem at hand by breaking it down with a series of very concrete questions and actions. In this particular case:
- How far, exactly, is it to Valle Hermoso?
- Does the gas station in Valle Hermoso have gas?
- Can we get to Valle Hermoso on what we have left in the tank?
- Will any of the locals sell us gas?
- How much gas would we need to get to Gobernador Costa?
- When will the gas stations in Sarmiento get a refill?
- Can we execute the actions for answers to any of the questions above in parallel (yeeeees, very geeky)?
How would you arrive at a list like this? You just need to take the “What if”s that are floating around and make proper questions of them. Sure, a few of the questions above are the result of previous questions, but all in all it’s not hard for a human being in need to come up with questions. The only real effort here is to prioritize the list so that you start working on the most important part first.
How do we get that information?
I’ll re-use the numbers of the questions above for clarity:
- Our paper map had pre-calculated distances printed and our TomTom device also had Valle Hermoso entered as a location, so this was a fairly simple procedure. The answer turned out to be about 65 kilometers in the direction we had first arrived from.
- This turned out to be a bit more tricky since you might not always get correct information from people. This isn’t because they want to harm you, it’s just that they do actually want to help you. So they might feed you crappy information just to keep up the appearance of being knowledgeable. The simple solution here is to ask multiple persons and to compare their answers. We ended up with the following data:
- Random person in a pick up truck: “No, there is no gas station at all in Valle Hermoso!”.
- Other random person in a sedan: “Yes, there is a gas station!”. This answer prompted me to further qualify the accuracy of that statement by asking “What company is it?”
- Rather quickly I got the answer “YPF!”.
- Two guys on motorcycles with small tanks: “Yes, there is a YPF station in Valle Hermoso, but it’s run out of gas as well.”. Being a motorcyclist myself I happen to know that bikers usually keep track of their fuel status and where to get more fuel. They both answered my questions more or less in unison, so I knew that the information would be pretty accurate.
- Being fairly confident that there is no gas in Valle Hermoso this question is now redundant (but no, we wouldn’t have gotten there with what we had left).
- Turns out that one local offered to check for gas in his home and return within one hour. One thing if importance to note here is that due to the language barrier (and probably stress) it was not agreed upon whether or not he would return regardless of what he had at home. This resulted in us waiting for two hours. Just to be sure.
- Using the paper map and the pre-calculated distances we gathered that 20 liters added to our tank might just be enough to get us there.
- Getting our hands on this information would of course have been very nice, how ever given the track record of previous “help” from locals and the limited amount of gas station attendants we knew we’d probably be fed inaccurate information without the possibility to cross check. And yes, later it turned out to be inaccurate.
- Yes! Whilst trying to rustle up some fuel from any locals passing by (#4) we also stopped and talked to people coming from various directions (#2) while at the same time analysing the maps for distance information (#1 & #5).
What is our alternative plan?
Looking at the information gathering process above and checking the current time it soon became pretty obvious that we’d need to get a hotel room, and in the end that’s what we ended up doing. To ensure that we’d actually get a room and not have to sleep in the car we decided that we had to start finding a room pretty soon, otherwise everyone else would’ve gotten to the rooms before us. Having the alternative plan ready and knowing when to act on it is necessary in order to stay one step ahead. Your alternative plan might not be one you like, but get yourself warmed up to the idea and don’t ignore it. In total we stayed in Sarmiento for about two and a half days. Each and every day one of us in the group would check around the gas stations to see if there were any news regarding a refill. Other than that there’s nothing much to do other than accepting the facts of life and that every other option has been identified and worked on.
It all ended on a Monday morning when after having decided that we’d arrive early and be first in line at the Petrobras station for the delivery that most likely would arrive that day. The ironic ending to this story is that while sitting in the car at the Petrobras station we saw a truck from YPF pass on the main road. It looked like it was heavily loaded and luckily another member in the group who had already begun walking towards the YPF station for information could call us and confirm that the truck was pulling in. So we decided to abandon Petrobras and bet for success at the YPF station. And success we had!