Wednesday 29 June 2011

How to be persistent and adaptable at the same time

The British venerate the “stiff upper lip”, the persistent, uncomplaining attitude on which, it is often written, the empire was built. Sir Winston Churchill, recently voted the greatest ever Briton, famously said in 1941:

Never give in - never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

Churchill’s persistence was legendary, but his circumstances were also exceptional. For many of us good sense requires that we do give up from time to time.

Often we have to ask ourselves "Am I being persistent - or foolhardy?"  While it can be difficult to tell without the benefit of hindsight, sometimes it is better to walk away than to stick to your course of action to the bitter end.  In fact, sticking to the wrong course can lead to far worse results than walking away...

Are you a quitter or a sitter?

When you review your life so far, do you notice that you spent longer in jobs and relationships than your peers?  Or maybe you move nimbly from one role to another but sometimes wish that you had stuck at something for longer?  Everyone has a predisposition to a certain level of persistence, and if you're persistent in one area of your life the chances are you will be in all of them.

But regrets for having stayed too long can be just as powerful as regrets for having quit too soon.  Sitters lose time while quitters lose opportunities.  If like me you've grown up believing that quitting is a sign of weakness, it's worth remembering that persistence is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  There is nothing good about sticking to your course for its own sake - especially if it's the wrong course.

Knowing when to walk away

Look around you always.  If you notice that the circumstances that made your goal worth pursuing have changed, ask yourself whether persisting is still your best course of action.  And look at yourself.  Are your dreams and aspirations still the same, or have they changed so that your goal is no longer as important as other priorities?

These internal and external considerations can help you identify whether it's time to walk away by helping you identify whether there is something more important to walk towards.

Choosing what to walk towards

So the decision to quit doesn't have to be a negative one.  It can instead be a decision that due to changing circumstances, a new goal is even more important.  This is a positive step rather than an act of cowardice - it ensures that your efforts are most likely to deliver results, and that your persistence is applied where it will be most effective.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes said: When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do sir?

If you can choose distant goals that provide a unifying purpose for all your actions, you will be able to master Churchillian persistence.  A coherent and convergent vision of what you want to achieve provides the best possible framework for persistent effort.

Don't call it "quitting" when it's "fitting"

Once you've identified your long-term goals, perseverance and change can co-exist.  Your pursuit of your goal is a constant, persistent theme, yet you can adapt and adjust to fit your environment.  Just as water always seeks the lowest point but will follow many paths to find it, so you can change course and speed en route to your goal and try many routes, while all the while persisting towards your ultimate destination.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

On competitiveness - picking the battles you want to win

On Monday evening I was invited to the launch of Row2Recovery - a great new charity supporting injured servicemen and women and their families. Sir Ranulph Fiennes gave a very entertaining speech about motivation, and its role in the many expeditions he has led. Motivation was a very relevant topic - the Row2Recovery team, including several servicemen who have lost limbs in Afghanistan, are preparing to row across the Atlantic.

Although his subject
was "motivation", one theme kept recurring - competitiveness. It was very clear that Sir Ranulph's principal motivation is competitiveness. Time and again he described decisions to prepare an expedition based on a desire to beat all other explorers - usually the French or Norwegians. As more and more of the world's challenges have been notched up by explorers, he has operated in the margin between that which has already been done, and that which is not possible.

Sir Ranulph explained that he was also competing for media attention - so that he could attract the sponsors who finance his expeditions. So when his New York based literary agent told him that desert expeditions were going out of fashion and that polar exploration was the new vogue, he began looking for cold weather records to break (and found several).

Few of us operate in the extreme competitive environment relished by Sir Ranulph, and I saw an example of the kind of competitive consideration that is more relevant in most of our lives when I visited a company yesterday. Hanging from one of the walls was a board with an African Proverb written on it - so I pulled out my camera.

A gazelle does not need to be the fastest gazelle - but it needs to be faster than at least one of its companions if it is to survive for long. This echoes the advice given to people going camping in bear country: "you don't need to be able to outrun bears, just take a slow camping companion with you".

Many organisations struggle to define their competitive set. It's very important to know who you need to beat in order to be successful, and sometimes it's not obvious. Sometimes the competitors you choose can respond very differently from you - for example because the cost of failure to them is much higher, or much lower. As a result, your competitor analysis should contain a thorough examination of what your rivals are seeking to achieve too. You may find that you can conserve resources by not taking on competitions that are unwinnable or unnecessary - and from time to time it makes sense to cooperate with your competitors to enlarge the opportunity that you both wish to exploit.

It pays to be a winner

If you would like some practice, try playing "it pays to be a winner" with some of your friends. The rules are simple. All you need to do is choose a distant but visible object, ideally at the top of a hill. Then race each other around the object and back to your starting point. The first person back to the starting point wins the first round, and can relax and watch as the remaining players repeat the process, until there is only one loser left!

This game has a number of benefits:
  1. It will get you very fit
  2. You'll find out how fast you are compared to your friends
  3. You'll learn how to judge when to use your resources
This final benefit is the key one. There is no point in expending energy coming second, so the best players conserve their resources until they know they have a good chance of winning - and then they go for it. To do this successfully you need a thorough knowledge of your rivals' strengths and weaknesses, and their appetite for risk.

Go on - give it a try!

The team from Row2Recovery are competing against each other for places in the final crew, and then they will be competing with the elements and with other crews to cross the Atlantic as quickly as possible. That's competitive spirit, and a battle worth winning!

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Take risks early - lessons from Commando Training

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Commando training offers lessons that reach far beyond soldiering skills. One of the widely applicable lessons of Commando tactics is the evaluation of risk and return - and the timing of risk-taking.

After a few weeks of learning the basics of field survival, navigation, communications and weapon skills, Royal Marines learn to disappear.

The "tactical" phase of Commando training enables Royal Marines to see without being seen, and to move undetected from place to place. These are vital military skills, and tactical movement gives big advantages on the battlefield and in low intensity conflicts where discretion is required.

One of the most important applications of tactical movement is reconnaissance. It's often said that "time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted" - but this isn't true!

I was introduced to tactical movement on a patrolling exercise called "Long Night". It was well named: we spent every night for a week conducting reconnaissance patrols around Norfolk, and every day planning the next night's outings. We would typically creep around 5 miles per night, silently but at a snail's pace.

Towards the end of the week, we were all very short of sleep, and we asked our instructor, who was an SBS Sergeant, what he thought. His answer has stayed with me ever since:

"If you're going to take risks, take them early"

That night, my 4 man team ran several miles towards our reconnaissance target (by an indirect route to avoid potential ambushes), ghost-walked a few hundred meters, leopard crawled for several minutes, and finally kitten-crawled the last few silent meters into position overlooking our target, where we took detailed notes. Then we reversed the process (though not the route) and were back at our base in time for a good long sleep.

The lesson we learned that night was really about matching risk with expected return over time. In any endeavour, the least bad time to fail is early, when you have invested minimum resources and time, and as you progress towards your goal you should moderate your risk-taking to reflect the value of what you stand to lose.

This trade-off informs both the "fail early, fail fast" approach used by R&D departments to winnow their research and focus on the most promising projects, and also the investment strategies of pension funds, which steadily reduce the risk of their client's portfolios as the pension nears maturity, for example by switching from equities to bonds.

For all of us, it's worth remembering that it's the timing of your risk taking that can be critical - a risk taken early usually puts less value at risk. Get it right and you'll probably sleep better at night too!

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.