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Why Improvisation and Thought Leadership are Essential to Success

by Adrian Savage

In today’s global, post-sub-prime-mortgage-bubble economy, it is not enough to do well. Small failures are punished by large falls in share price. Capital is far tougher to find and comes with more strings attached. Everyone faces a more skeptical public and press. Business competition has gone global, so managers have to make do with less and still provide expected results. The mantra is still “better results from fewer people, less resources and lower costs.”

Following the herd will never produce a lead over others. Playing safe means never breaking away from the pack. Yet the pack is where all the mediocre, barely-surviving people and companies will be found.

In reality, taking the conventional line is extremely risky in any business climate, let alone a tough one. The managers and organizations who get ahead have always been thought leaders: forward-thinking, imaginative people always ready to find new ways and break with out-dated conventions. People like this don’t follow “industry best practice,” they create it. And by the time everyone else gets around to copying what they are doing, they’re already out ahead, doing something else. They know that there is no advantage to be gained by playing “catch up.”

The more we seek to avoid the supposedly high risk game of taking the lead, the more likely we are to find ourselves lumped in with everyone else: the “cannon fodder” who are the most easily expendable when times become critical.

Is there a way to use adversity itself to build a solid base for achievement, regardless of upturns or downturns? Is it possible to minimize risk without limiting achievement by sticking with the mediocre majority? It is indeed. This article will show you how it works.

Understanding how it truly is

When we are faced with a problem, most of us immediately begin to focus on the symptoms. They define what the problem looks like, where it produces discomfort and why we have tackled it in the first place. Get rid of the symptoms and the problem will be eliminated.

Wrong. Those symptoms are our friends. Like the pain from a cut or a bruise, they alert us to trouble and point us to where it may be. If we take the corporate equivalent of painkillers to suppress our discomfort, we may allow things to drift along until what was a common cold turns into pneumonia with complications.

What we need is a clear appreciation of the causes that produce any symptoms. Reaching at once for an off-the-shelf solution (say from industry best practice) is a recipe for confusion, frustration and failure. However good in itself, it may have little or no relation to the underlying issues that caused our specific problem—and will go on sustaining it.

Those who dare to improvise, win

Most of life is a process of adaptation and improvisation: doing the best we can and managing to cope, despite lacking the resources, knowledge, skills or preparation we would have chosen, had we only known what we would have to face.

Over the millennia, the human species has been shaped by the need to cope with the unexpected. From the cave man trying to survive in a world with predators well known for egregious greed (saber-toothed tigers, wolves and bears), to sixteenth century navigators sailing toward the edge of the known world and astronauts risking death, improvisation has been the very stuff of survival.

Adaptability, innovation and improvisation sum up potential: the capacity and determination to face unexpected, potentially catastrophic challenges and overcome them. Those who emerge as true leaders are always proactive mentally, as well as physically, reaching forward in their minds to find fresh ways to deal with life’s uncertainties. They open their minds and embrace necessary risks, instead of trying to ignore or run away from them.

If it ain’t broke, break it now — then you can fix it up better than it was before

Improvisation and creative thinking are often the first casualties in times of risk and hardship. People and organizations easily fall prey to the urge to play it safe. It feels just too risky to stick your neck out and try something new, even if current approaches are failing on every side. In reality, the riskiest option is sticking with what you know. The symptoms of the problem are telling you that something different is needed. Suppressing them changes nothing. The conventional way to manage organizations certainly seems to me to be broken, perhaps beyond repair. If received wisdom was working, we wouldn’t be in this mess. It’s high time we stopped banging our heads against the same old wall and tried something new.

Following the herd takes little or no mental effort. Yet outstripping competitors in a world where talent is always in short supply and competition can come from all sides demands an ability to think far ahead of everyone else to create fresh ideas that can lead the way into new areas for success. Remember: thought leaders create markets; they don’t spend their whole time in existing ones. They find new products, new processes, new ways to organize and use resources. And because they’re first to develop and use any of these, they do so at a time when returns will be at their maximum.

How do I become a thought leader?

Try following these simple steps:

  • Always seek out the root causes of problems (or good or poor performance) and work only on those. Treat symptoms as warnings, not the problems to be addressed.
  • While others are fixated on quick returns, build the capability to succeed this year, next year and far into the future. You need to develop strength like a marathon runner and avoid sprinting. Never sacrifice the future to manufacture short-lived results that soon fade.
  • Fix your focus on building sustainable performance and keeping up a steady flow of ideas. If you don’t know, find out. If you can’t see the way ahead, stop rushing around and take enough time to work something out. Never do the same old thing, just because you haven’t the time, energy, or imagination to find a better way.
  • Retain key employees with long-term rewards, offering the security and support that generate mutual trust. Avoid coercive forms of measurement and repressive, macho approaches.
  • Never equate leanness with fitness, and avoid cutbacks for the sake of appearances. Always steer clear of those endless cycles of corporate anorexia and bulimia that have characterized the past decades. Genuine development of organizational and individual potential produces long-term, qualitative benefits that will not be reversed by the natural turbulence of events.
  • Remember that learning and growth are the only real insurance against the unknown risks of the future, not costs to be minimized or removed when things get tough. Would you cancel your homeowners insurance as soon as you heard that there were thieves in the area?
  • Finally, value anything (people, products, ideas, resources) for its future, not its past. However good something was, that’s over and gone. You can’t eat the same meal twice, nor win a race that is already over.

The more the demand grows for quick, easily-attainable and quantifiable results, the more our aims become distorted to give only these — even if it hurts the organization’s interests in the longer term. Our organizations, like our society, have a long history of trying to deal with problems by alternately ignoring them and repeating “answers” that are already known, instead of exploring to understand what produces the problems and continues to sustain them. We need to understand the futility of this kind of behavior and concentrate on doing something else: something creative and more likely to fit the answer to the problem, instead of the other way around.

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