As a child, I was fascinated by ancient Greece, the history, the mythology, and my imagination of what it was like back then. In school, I took classical studies as an extra subject, including the works of Homer: The Odyssey and The Iliad. As an adolescent, I learned about Spartan warriors. Learning about the Spartans placed a lens that positively altered my worldview ever since.
Later in life, I enjoyed a decade-long career as a professional rugby player. I was never the most talented player, but I was ultra disciplined. I wanted to know that when I played I gave myself every opportunity to perform to the best of my ability. Above all this called for self-discipline. I attribute this mindset to the influence of stories I read about Spartan warriors.
According to the ancient Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch, training began at a young age. When Spartan boys reached the age of seven, dutiful parents turned over to the state, where they were organized into companies that lived, studied and trained together. Plutarch shared how young Spartans trained harder than any other soldiers, they seldom bathed and walked barefoot. These deliberate acts prepared their bodies for the hardships of battle. From the comfort of my privileged life (in comparison), I embodied what I could of this mindset into my approach to physical training (and later my work). I understood that training alone on a freezing cold, wet and rainy Irish evening would prepare me for future matches when that training would pay off. The key mantra I would repeat to myself whenever I didn’t feel like doing the work was a Spartan warrior one, “The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in war.”
While Spartans trained more effectively than other armies, sacrificed more and endured optional hardships to prepare themselves for war there is a key, but often overlooked ingredient to their success. The Spartans’ real secret wasn’t just physical fitness or indifference to pain and suffering, but their superior organization. Spartan troops drilled relentlessly until they could execute tactics with perfection. “It was probably their training in tactical manoeuvres which really gave Spartan soldiers their edge on the battlefield,” J.F. Lazenby writes in his book “The Spartan Army”. In a team sense, whether a sports team or organizational team, this means we both need the mindset and the means to prepare for battle.
What has this got to do with Innovation, Strategy and Transformation?
Imagine for a moment you wanted to run a marathon. You would never simply show up and learn how to run as you partake in the event. You would prepare, log months of preparatory training, eat the right foods, hydrate well before the event and then perform to the best of your ability having done the preparatory work.
However, when it comes to organisational change initiatives of all kinds, we don’t sweat in times of peace, we don’t build the capability muscles to enable our organizations to compete in the race against extinction. Why should you change? you might ask. Why change when our organization is the undisputed leader in our industry? Why change, when we enjoy, continued year-over-year net revenue growth and healthy margins? Why change when our strategy is working? Why distract our people from milking the cash cow?
According to the World Economic Forum, there has been no historic precedent to today’s convergence of technologies. We would have to go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s to see just three significant innovation platforms come together over several decades: electricity, the telephone, and the internal combustion engine. Today there are at least ten: Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Autonomous Vehicles, Robotics, 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, AR, MR and VR, and Next Generation Internet (including 5G). Because of this convergence of technologies coupled with access to cheap capital and the agile mindsets of startups, these technologies are generating new ecosystems and new competitors who move at an unprecedented pace. As a result, legacy, existing organizations are crippled in managing the past with very little bandwidth to even think about the future, so where do they start?
A core message of my book, “Undisruptable, a Mindset of Permanent Reinvention” is to change business models, you must first change mental models. This is the starting point of my work with organizations, first humanics, then mechanics. We start educating the organisation on the merits of a culture of innovating especially because most of us have been educated and prepared for a steady and staid working environment, one that no longer exists.
After a series of mindset workshops, keynotes, and group discussions (remotely or otherwise) we move to build communication pipelines: how do we share ideas, how does a front line worker “send” their idea to those who can action that idea, indeed, how do they get involved. Concurrently, we start with some small experiments, what can try, what can we hack, what can we build, what we can stop doing, what we can eliminate? The key lens through which to view these experiments is not the output but the input. How did we mobilize to deliver an experiment? Who was really energised by this work? What did we learn through the scar tissue of experience rather than the words we skim in a PowerPoint presentation?
This is about capability building.
This is how people sweat in peace.
This is how we prepare for war.
Should I focus on execution and return on investment?
When we train for a marathon, we stand a better chance of competing. When we “sweat in times of peace” it benefits us “in times of war”. When we build new capability before we need it, it is partly formed when need it most. When someone pulls the rug from under us, we have another rug in place.
Consider how many organizations were caught out because of the pandemic. Covid-19 accelerated the need for reinvention, digitalization, and the adoption of remote working practices. The organizations that had prepared in times of peace, thrived during the ceaseless war. This counts not only for new skills and capabilities but also for principles, behaviours, mindset, and organisational culture. As Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon said, “Entering into a crisis is not the time to figure out what you want to be. You must already be a well-functioning organization prepared to rapidly mobilize your resources, take your losses and survive another day for the good of all your stakeholders.”
Too often, when leaders realize they need to reinvent, it is too late. Organizations reluctantly reinvent in times of crisis because of some market turbulence or an upstart competitor is eating into their P&L sheet. When they do this in desperation or as a last resort, they rarely reinvent effectively and they rarely survive. In their book, “Stall Points”, Matthew S. Olson and Derek van Bever revealed that once an organization experiences a major stall in its growth, it has less than a 10% chance of ever enjoying its previous levels of success.
As for individuals, disruption might manifest as a sudden job loss when they find themselves on the wrong side of an organizational restructure. These are the moments, we regret that we did not use our peacetime wisely. If only we built new skills before they became critical if only we had sweated more in times of peace so that we could bleed less in war.
THANKS FOR READING