Wingman

One of the most valuable things we can do when we’re trying to find a way forward is to put our thoughts out there with somebody we trust.

Somebody who will challenge and look for our weak spots, with the intent of sharpening our argument, or our game.

I’ve been wrestling with a paradox. When we coach, we cannot have an agenda- we are in service of our client’s thinking. The moment we introduce our own thinking, uninvited, we are no longer coaches.

At the same time, part of our job is to introduce ideas and concepts that might move our client forward.

So, how do we square this circle?

My “sparring partner” today helped me see a route.

In what seems a long time ago, I was an officer in the R.A.F. During my time there, I was taught the idea of a “wing man“. The concept is as simple as it is powerful. When we are focused on a target, we lose peripheral vision. We are so focused on the target, we fail to see what is going on around us.

The wing man provides that. She looks out for us, and feeds back to us threats we may not see.

The biggest threats we are facing today sit outside of our immediate vision. We may achieve and celebrate short term financial goals, whilst at the same time not see the bigger systemic picture, wherein lie the issues that will take us out of the game.

All of us need a “wingman” or woman. I’m grateful for mine. Who’s yours?

Clunky

When we watch a murmuration of starlings, or a salmon going upstream what we wonder at is their fluidity; the sheer joy of movement.

So why is it that most of our organisations are so clunky?

Admittedly, neither starlings nor salmon have large pre frontal cortex but maybe sometimes, that’s our problem. We over think, over analyse, and worry about failure.

The very best performers however do not. They have long ago internalised why they are doing what they are doing, with whom they are doing it and the environment in which they are doing it. Then they just get on with it; unencumbered.

We make ourselves clunky. By not being clear on why we’re doing what we are doing, and why it is important. By not making sure that we understand those with whom we’re doing it. By not making sure we understand our surroundings. By hanging on to our original plan even when we know it’s not working. By not doing the work needed to prepare.

We don’t have to be clunky, but it’s hard work.

Beyond Certainty

Certainty is often quoted as the lifeblood of markets. The dictionary defines certain as “free from doubt or reservation; confident; sure”.

In todays conditions however, most of what we deal with has a very short time horizon. Certainty is difficult, if not just illusory.

When I went to University and started my career (not just pre internet, in the age of emerging fax) the time horizon was longer, or so we thought. A good degree and a good employer offered a relatively risk free route via good salary to a good pension. In my own case, it was an RAF scholarship, which was all of these, only more so. I had in effect a fixed 38 year contract. Attractive in concept, I lasted nine years. Curiosity and compliance do not make comfortable companions.

I have spent the rest of my business career in conditions of serial uncertainty – in corporates starting new ventures or recovering failed ones, then in private businesses in UK and Europe doing much the same, for the last ten years doing the same with my own businesses. Along the way, it has encompassed great success and painful failure, but on average has been very good. Which says everything about the descriptive power of averages.

What made it work for me were the things I was certain in. My spouse (who has been there from the beginning), my family, friends, and a determination only to work for things, and with people, I believed worthwhile. (for sake of clarity, not all of it. There was an interesting period of a couple years where I compromised this – making me determined never to do it again)

What I recognize in retrospect was the power of what Jonathan Fields calls in his book “Uncertainty”; “certainty anchors”. If we accept that most of what goes on around us is inherently uncertain, we need to create areas where we are certain. They can, if we are lucky, be the big things but can equally be something as simple as going for a walk at the same time each day, meditation for a few minutes each morning, following a football team (I do the first two, but not the last. I live in Derby and the pressure is too much). For a business, it might be monthly non agenda-driven get togethers or an adopted charity. These “certainty anchors’ give us a place to stand, and deal with most uncertainty for what it is – “noise” rather than signal.

Market conditions of uncertainty are a great platform for growth. Big, established companies are much more vulnerable to uncertainty, and have a lot of mouths to feed from staff to shareholders, making them less resilient than smaller nimbler companies. The “Status quo” has a far shorter life, and technology is ensuring the resources gap between large and small businesses is reducing quickly.

The most powerful unit of change today is small, dedicated teams (research suggests less than twenty) who share a common purpose, a sense of humour and who can create their own “certainty platforms” to deal with the conditions they face. They can exist anywhere, from start ups to corporates. They are “talent magnets”, flexible, and have, as we shall see in future posts, all the critical ingredients for achieving success in uncertain conditions.

Structuring and leading to exploit uncertainty is a huge opportunity. We can all do it; if we choose.