The need to be both strategic and opportunistic
Find a balance between planning and serendipity to maximize your potential
Without strategy and planning, your organization isn’t likely to accomplish much
Conversely, sticking too tightly to rigid plans often leads to missed opportunities
Ideally, you want to find a balance - but how can you count on spontaneity?
Agility - the ability to shift priorities quickly - is essential in times of rapid change
Have a flexible mindset and avoid being too rigid in pursuit of the wrong goals
Scoring goals in hockey by getting “puck luck”
We are approaching the middle of winter in North America, and hockey season is hitting the halfway point in the National Hockey League. I’m grateful that my favorite team, the Detroit Red Wings, is finally competitive again after missing the playoffs for six straight seasons. I watch as many games as possible, and it has been enjoyable to see the team have a bit more success after hiring a new coach in the offseason. Hockey is a sport that can be pretty random: the small rubber puck flies around the rink and can take crazy bounces off players, the boards, and the net. Some goals demonstrate players' remarkable skills; others result from opportunistic bounces or “puck luck.” While coaches preach an overall philosophy to their team and make strategic choices about which players should be in the lineup against opponents, many wins and losses are due to chance.
Because good fortune from unexpected outcomes occurs on a routine basis in hockey, a common refrain captures this element of the sport: “They don’t count how - only how many.” In other words, the result is the same whether a goal is scored as the result of a well-executed plan or an unexpected bounce. The winning team is the one that scores the most goals in the game - regardless of how they occurred. It’s an instructive lesson for those outside of hockey to learn. While having a sound strategy and solid plans are essential elements of success, being open to new opportunities that suddenly present themselves is also critical in today’s rapidly changing world.
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Being comfortable with being uncomfortable
In the last edition of Forestview, I referred to the book Like, Comment, Subscribe by author Mark Bergen on the history of YouTube. One theme that recurs throughout the story - and in many other instances - is the immense energy and devotion employees have to achieve metrics that senior leaders have set for the company at the expense of different objectives. For example, in the mid-2010s, there was a big push to boost users' time watching videos on YouTube to attract high advertising revenues and combat rivals such as Facebook. This goal is relentlessly pursued even after many creators raise concerns about the amount of bullying online, the rise of conspiracy theories and misinformation, and the elevation of fringe personalities such as Alex Jones of InfoWars. The book makes clear that senior decision-makers were in a Silicon Valley “bubble” of sorts that prized “free speech” and assumed that the “marketplace of ideas” would sort out which videos deserved to be seen the most - ignoring the fact that new and powerful machine-learning algorithms were creating an echo chamber for the alt-right through increasingly refined recommendations.
As I mentioned in the last edition of Forestview, one of the challenges with shaping the future is that there is not always a clear roadmap. Having an overall vision, building a strategy, and developing plans to deliver intended outcomes is essential, but there also needs room for feedback loops and adaptation. Leaders need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable: they will continually face a lot of uncertainty. In these environments, it’s best to be open to various possibilities and listen to a broad cross-section of voices.
Improve listening to avoid negative outcomes
Books and movies love to play the “blame game” after the fact. Tales of corporate misfortune abound; think of recent books and related shows on Theranos and Uber, for example. Every horror story or account of misfortunate seems like a series of voices inevitably emerging with the basic message of “I told you so.” A common refrain from senior leaders is that they find themselves in unforeseeable situations. Yet, the presence of those dissenting voices belies this. The real issue is that there is always a range of opinions on important topics, and it’s rarely apparent at the moment which ones will prove prescient. When there are differing views on the proper actions to pursue, some people will inevitably be disappointed if their ideas are not implemented.
The temptation is for senior leaders to fall prey to confirmation bias: elevate the voices that reinforce their preconceived notions or beliefs and diminish or ignore dissenting views. This is where leaders must improve their listening skills. The best trait of one of my former employers, USAA, was the attention they paid to customer complaints. It often drove us crazy as employees due to the large number of resources and attention we devoted to investigating and resolving negative feedback. Still, complaints served as a “canary in the coal mine” that commonly surfaced real issues that USAA could resolve quickly and cheaply before they blew up into full-blown crises. The ability to listen to a full range of voices and quickly adapt as needed allows firms to avoid negative outcomes and seize upon new opportunities. By allowing for spontaneity and serendipity alongside set plans, your firm can fully take advantage of good “puck luck” when it comes your way.
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