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Surviving and Thriving at the Waterhole

The Giraffe probably does not have a thought process which allows it to reason. ‘Perhaps if I got up early and headed down to the waterhole a little sooner tomorrow I could get a good drink and be back up here amongst the lush foliage before that hungry old Lion has opened his eyes and scratched his backside!’

Anticipating beyond today is not perhaps a giraffe’s strong point.  Nor it seems, is it for many organisations. It’s the old 5th quarter problem.  Most executives are capable of describing their world in the next quarter, or the one after that, and that, and that; but the fifth quarter - is an unknown land of mystery and surprise!  Rarely discussed, rarely anticipated, almost never do we prioritise tomorrow over today.  In ‘good old days’ this was reasonable; for tomorrow, we could assume, would be recognisably like today.

Goings on at the Waterhole

Maybe for giraffes this still holds up, but for organisations this is no longer the case. Our world is full of unexpected lions, unimagined of beasts, and someone keeps moving the waterhole! A lack of preparedness for this is dangerous as - to paraphrase the words said some time ago – tragedy awaits not those who are surprised but those who are surprised they are surprised. A sense of the following morning and the ability to respond to its’ unexpected threats and opportunities is critical.  Being surprised that you are surprised can be a real threat. A cursory glance at the Fortune 1000 and the FTSE 100 will reveal that the majority of organisations in the upper echelons over a 10 year period will be surprised they are surprised and fail, sometimes terminally.

Now our old Giraffe may be low on anticipation but has developed some useful responses to being surprised.  First of all Giraffes have pretty good short distance acceleration, secondly vital organs are situated a long way off the ground and thirdly, best of all, a ferocious kick which would make the toughest lion wary.

Being Prepared

Developing organisational responsiveness to the evolving future has become a bit of a mission.  Over the years it has been possible to recognise patterns to suggest who will respond best to the inevitable ‘surprises’. ‘The future is in the present’; prepared organisations have learned to ‘anticipate’ the conflicting and ambiguous possibilities lying ahead of them.  Then there is the ‘culture of collaboration’ which, when flourishing, enables rapid responses to be mobilised that cross boundaries of process, geography, hierarchy etc. Added to this they exhibit ‘risk-conscious decisiveness’. Risk needs to be managed but should not be an excuse to over analyse and procrastinate. In a fast changing environment the starting conditions for any decision are in themselves rapidly evolving so that slow decisions can easily be based upon redundant conditions. Risks need to be openly discussed, understood and embraced. Finally there is ‘Leadership Capacity’; leaders are not bogged down in doing their direct reports jobs for them. Nor are they so overwhelmed with projects and priorities that they disengage from each other and the whole. Leaders need to focus not just on the day-to-day but on the emerging future of the business to ensure the above factors are engaged with across the organisation.  The phenomena of leadership capital; a community of leaders, characterised by high levels of trust, openness and reciprocity will be very important.

Giraffes have survived for millennia – organisations rarely for more than a few dozen years. Being planful is not enough – rapid responsiveness  - based on the above will foster much greater organisational effectiveness and do much to keep the lions at bay.

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