I’m not generally a big fan of sporting metaphors in business, as they tend to be overly reductive, but the one that has been adapted from a quote Canadian ice hockey-player Wayne Gretzky is interesting and something that I’m hearing quite a bit these days:
I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.
If we internationalise it a bit by putting it into the context of the World’s favourite game – run to where the ball will be passed – it provides a useful way to think about how businesses (and especially big businesses) tend to be reactive rather than predictive in their actions. In core business activities, that manifests in organisations that react to the market around them rather than trying to shape it. In supporting business activities that means acting only when things have become issues rather than shaping for the future.
It’s really hard to motivate an organisation to do something that it could put off until tomorrow. That’s a combination of organisational governance (maximising shareholder value in particular) and human foibles (our tendency to defer cost and pain to the future if we possibly can).
There are a few reactions to this: the first is to create a crisis, a burning platform. Usually this comes in using regulatory concerns to act as a compelling reason why something should change. Information security, Data Protection, Sarbanes Oxley… heck I’ve seen a multi-million pound direct marketing database justified on the back of improving data protection compliance when any sane analysis would say that by increasing your direct marketing activity by default increases your risk of data protection issues.
Financial hard times also can act as a catalyst for change, and it has to be said that some of the most successful projects in which I’ve been involved had the 2008 financial crisis looming over them.
But the trouble with creating burning platforms is that you risk motivating by stick with no carrot. Motivating purely on averting negative consequences in the future is hard – people go through the motions from fear, but it’s hard to get deep buy-in.
The second approach is the create a big vision and a big project. Given that the project is almost certainly by its nature speculative, that’s likely to end in disappointment. At best the big bet will get canned before any significant money is spent – at worst it ends in financial disaster.
But the sorts of initiatives that involve speculatively heading to an as yet unknown better place in the future are, for me, the perfect place for where agile, iterative approaches shine most strongly. Sure you can have a vision – Kennedy’s pledge to get a man on the moon by the end of the 60s wasn’t accompanied by a detailed plan; it was an iterative series of steps (many of them quite big, I’ll grant you) that progressed in the light of the big vision.
Think about the metaphor again: running to where the ball will be passed is not a A/B decision point – it’s a constantly adaptive act, judging, sensing, spotting opportunities, starting, pivoting, changing track. A cloud not a clock.