It’s been a while since I explored a sporting analogy, but my son shared a video with me this week that I just couldn’t resist. It’s a short film of a climber bouldering (For those of you who don’t follow these things, bouldering is low-height, rope-less climbing that focusses on technical moves rather than the length of the climb) on what would seem to most people to be a perfectly smooth rock-face. The climber uses the very tips of his fingers and toes to get traction on the tiniest of edges, advances in smooth fluid motions and avoids jerky movements to eliminate slipping while distributing his weight perfectly to avoid overloading each hold. Done well its a masterpiece of strength, physics and ballet, but in this case, he doesn’t even make it look that difficult.

This short clip seemed to parallel the way we tackle business challenges. I earn my living showing businesses ways around obstacles to growth that, like the route up this boulder, just aren’t visible to them. Its not rocket science, but I guess it’s an art of sorts. Also like the bouldering, every challenge is unique and there isn’t a set route. The moves you need to employ have to suit the particular rock-face and often you are making them up as you go, but having encountered so many of them over the years I’ve developed a knack for spotting the way forward and can “invent” solutions for the day-to-day issues that the bigger challenge throws up. I talked about that in a pice a few months ago on “adaptive management“.

As I see it, when you face challenges like this you have three choices. The first is to just accept defeat and assume that its impossible, but that, of course, gets you nowhere. As you will know, a lot of businesses do just that. Another approach is to throw yourself at it like a raging bull – all adrenalin and brute force, but this rarely works because you over-stress holds and miss your footing. The third might seem at first to be the slow approach, but its actually the one that usually results in the greatest progress. It involves initial planning and considered moves.

I’ve always recognised that I am impatient and perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned over the years has been to take my time to increase my chances of success. Nevertheless, I have never lost my sense of urgency, which has proven a good thing in recent years, in my work with start-ups, where winning the race for minimum viable product (MVP), the generally regarded point at which an innovation achieves critical mass, is critical. In my seminars I used to talk around a diagram that demonstrated the compression over the years of the early stages of a product lifecycle. These days, of course, the period between innovation and competitors coming to market with the same product is a mere fraction of what it was ten years ago, but it remains the time in which an early mover can recoup their investment and put cash in the bank. In fact, the time span is often so small that early viability studies frequently prove that however good an innovation may be it isn’t going to float commercially. It’s frequently a fine line and the only way, besides straight-up luck (and if you are that lucky you should just keep life simple and play the lottery!), of hitting pay dirt at speed is with a whole lot of experience behind you. It’s that adaptive management thing again. That’s why, while many of the innovations we see hitting the streets today are the product of lively and unrestrained young minds, its the old guys who are increasingly making them happen.

Phil Darby
August 2, 2014

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