Target Fixation

target-fixationAnyone who has done a basic riding course, or raced, or flown as a pilot will tell you about “target fixation” – the natural risk we face of colliding with what we are focused on.

A major cause of accidents for beginners at cycling is that they focus on what they want to avoid, rather than where they want to go.

We more we look at the apex of an approaching corner, or a pot hole in the road, rather than beyond it to where we want to go, the more we increase our chances of hitting it.

It always seems strange to me then that in organisations, we spend our time looking at what we want to avoid. We spend a lot of time looking at problems and analysing risk, rather than looking at possibilities for growth, or impact, or opportunity. Even just a quick look back at the BREXIT campaign is instructive – by focusing on the downsides, it seems we are going to encounter them. I wonder what might have happened if we’d looked instead at where leaving, or staying, might have offered possibilities?

There’s an interesting working paper from MIT Sloan with the catchy title “Identifying viable “need-solution pairs”: Problem solving without problem formulation“. A serious read, unless you’re into this type of thing – but important.

At the heart of the thesis is that focusing on solutions to identified problems restricts us. If on the other hand, we focus on identifying possibilities, the solutions to problems appear more effectively, and move us beyond conventional solutions. A classic example they quote is roller luggage:

“Mr. Bernard D. Sadow, now 85, had his eureka moment in 1970 as he lugged two heavy suitcases through an airport while returning from a family vacation in Aruba. Waiting at customs, he said, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

“I said to my wife, ‘You know, that’s what we need for luggage,’ ” Mr. Sadow recalled. When he got back to work, [Sadow worked at a luggage company] he took casters off a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a big travel suitcase. “I put a strap on the front and pulled it, and it worked,” he said.” (Sharkey 2010)”

At a time of volatile and unpredictable change, our brain’s natural focus is often directed by fear rather than reward. The last thing we want to do is welcome the threat we see as a platform for possibility, let alone ignore it and look beyond it to where we want to be.

But that’s what we need to do.

Of course we need to understand and manage the risks we see as best we can – but not to the exclusion of possibility.

Mind where you place your attention.

Plan A or Plan B?

Ejector Seat

Plan A and Plan B are different.

We are often exhorted to avoid a “Plan B” mentality, as it involves, or even invokes, a failure mindset. At the same time, we are encouraged to think lean, to test MVP – “minimum viable product”, and to make “persevere or pivot” decisions based on evidence  and experience.

Plan A can be the stuff of heroes, even if heroic failure. The Light Brigade had no plan B. Neither did Lehman. When it works – like Dyson – it works really well. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

One of our well known retailers may have promoted a legend of “Plan A, because there is no Plan B”, devised I suspect via more or less conventional strategic processes. In its current situation, I do wonder though whether the shareholders may have one.

On the other hand, Dyson is a legedary Plan A company, and has done rather well.

Plan B can be inspiration of insight, of a stroke of genius ignited by a willingness to lift our nose from the grindstone. Twitter started out as Odeo, a podcasting platform that found itself threatened by iTunes, Given two weeks to find an alternative, the team came up with the idea of microblogging. That seems to be working quite well.

The key of course is whose plan it is, and that in turn comes down to purpose. If an individual, or committed team, is driven by a clear sense of personal and collective purpose – a compelling sense of being involved in something worthwhile, in something bigger than ourselves, then we are in control.

If we are working with people who share or support that purpose, stronger still. If the role we fill supports both, take a bow. Plan B is not a priority. You are in the company of Whole Foods, of Zappos, of the Acumen Fund, and many of the inspirational charities and “not for profits” that change lives.

On the other hand, many of us find ourselves in places less certain, where the purpose of owners, leaders, managers, staff and clients sit in a diverse array of different purpose.

In these cases, the collateral effects of a BREXIT vote, or a shareholder decision, removes the fragile certainties on which our jobs rest. Unless we have purpose, we end up in reactive mode, chasing shadows, and less than happy. In these circumstances, having a Plan B is vital.

For most of us, Plan A and Plan B are different but complementary.

Plan A is about us, our purpose, and our capability of doing something meaningful. It doesn’t have to be huge (although that is good!), but it does need to have meaning. With a clear sense of, and commitment to, meaning and personal purpose, we find the resilience to always move forward. Even when surrounded by what seems at first sight, collective idiocy, we can still find our way. It may change over time, but it is us who change it.

Plan B is about where we exercise Plan A. We can choose who we work for and with, about the obigations we take on, and about our ability, if needed, to pivot. The challenge we face is not to let Plan A become hostage to Plan B. When money, or ego, or debt tie us to Plan B, Plan A suffers. Plan B can be changed my many forces, very few of which are under our control, but to which we can adapt if we have a clear Plan A.

Plan A requires the hard work of reflection – who we are, what really matters to us, what we are prepared to do to get it, and to keep the end in mind as we pursue it.

If short of inspiration, read “What to do when it’s your turn” by Seth Godin. If that doesn’t do it, mail me for others.

Plan B requires us to treat the more superficial attractions of those we work for as just that – Dispensable. We can seek out those organisations where our own sense of purpose, aligns with theirs, and the role we fill strengthens both. If we can’t find them yet, that’s ok – just keep plan A centre stage while you do the equivalent of a resting actor flipping burgers. For ideas on a framework to construct your Plan B, have a look at Business Model You.

Bear in mind, career decisions are as open to “Buyers Remorse” as overpaying for that new car. Don’t fall for it. Being taken hostage is just too easy.

Plan A is your life.

Plan B is how you spend it.