I recently saw a presentation from Dr. Donald Sull author of The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World and a professor at the London Business School. He recounted the story of the famous match between world heavyweight champion George Foreman against former world champion and challenger Muhammad Ali in 1974. The bookies at the time were giving 6:1 odds for a Foreman win. Foreman wasn’t agile, he wasn’t fast but he had the ability to absorb any punch. His previous opponents could pummel him but he could take the punches until the time was right and he would knock out his opponent with sheer brute strength. Ali on the other hand was agile. He was fast, he moved like lightening.
What the bookies knew was that agility was good but you also needed the ability to absorb the punches to win the fight. Sull postulates that both of these are required for companies to be successful in today’s turbulent world. We can learn something from this. I would contend that it is the same combination of both of these factors that allow the best consultants to be successful in a turbulent project.
I won’t repeat my blog post here that was entitled Versatile Consulting. The purpose of that post was to talk about versatility and agility in consulting. The ability to apply the skills that you have across many areas of the engagement and the willingness to be agile in the use of those skills.
The skill or perhaps more accurately named “trait” that is less talked about is the endurance to see a project through even when you are taking a few “punches”.
I was called in to review a project that was in trouble. It had missed some major deliverables and key personnel were bailing from the project after seeing the proverbial “writing on the wall” signs of project trouble. My arrival was not greeted with great enthusiasm after weeks of receiving critical “seagull” audit reports (fly-in, poop all over, fly-out). The embattled remaining team members had become rightfully suspicious of another head office person who was “here to help you!” The thing I first noticed in the project was that the remaining team was deeply and personally invested in the project’s success. Yes, there were mistakes made but the team had made a commitment to stick with it, correct the mistakes and despite the “punches” would keep standing there adamant that the project would succeed. It did.
The architects and PM’s absorbed punches from the client, even when the decisions they made were good ones. They took punches from their PMO, their HQ bosses, the Client Sales representative and their family members. Yet they decided to stand and to not throw in the towel. There is no perfect project(ok some are very close… I’ll give that one to Casey and Rebecca et al for near perfect execution) so one of the important capabilities to develop for turbulent times is the ability to absorb the punches.
The four keys to being able to absorb the punch are:
- expect the punch. Keep track of the high risk items, know what will happen if it occurs and have a plan. (ie. loss of your key resources)
- don’t take it personally. When things have gone wrong, expect the punch. If you are the lead consultant, PM or most visible consultant expect it to be aimed at you. You are the proxy and an available channel to vent some client and/or corporate frustration but remember it’s really not aimed at you personally.
- don’t hit back. This may seem obvious but I have seen consultants react to negative feedback/actions from a client by trying to punch back directly blaming the client for the problem or worse yet escalating it in the client’s organization that the client has caused the issue. Both of these errant reactions are fatal.
- don’t ignore it. Separate the reaction from the causal issue and focus on talking through the issue with the puncher. It helps move the process forward, de-personalizes it and a person focused on issue resolution isn’t one that is focused on planning the next punch.
It is the combination of agility and absorption that according to Dr. Sull make the best ingredients for companies to take advantage of the turbulence in the market and succeed. A turbulent project can be thought of as a microcosm of the same. Agility in the turbulent project allows consultants to optimize the use of their skills by applying the skill set where and how it is needed the most. Absorption in the turbulent project is the ability to take a few punches without being knocked out and the ability to stay in the ring and see the project through to successful conclusion.
Agility and Absorption
What the bookies didn’t know was that for many months prior to the fight Ali’s trainers scoured the cities looking for the biggest, toughest, hardest hitting sparring partners to work with Ali with one special rule. Ali was never allowed to hit back. He trained himself and his body to absorb the punishing blows so that he had both agility and the absorption which gave him the greatest win ever in boxing history. Ali-Foreman 1974 We can perhaps learn from that too.