Finding opportunities in a changing world
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. (Machiavelli)
By Karen Green
Crises have often served as crucibles for innovation and change, and there is no doubt that we are currently facing a world that is rapidly redefining itself. So, how do we find the opportunities we can leverage in our business? To see the potential and ideas that can be harnessed to help businesses to survive and thrive in the world emerging from a COVID-19 universe? In essence, how do we see the wood through all the trees?
Leaders bear responsibility for identification and interpretation of information that often sits just outside our line of sight. In a crisis, like COVID-19, we naturally shift into command and control leadership which, by its very nature, has us hyper-focused on the actions at hand. The brain also brings its limitations in managing stress. Stress can cause us to drop into the fight, flight or freeze mode, and in this mode, we can find our focus narrowing as we regulate the survival response.
All of this affects us at a time when people look to us as leaders to notice when things are going wrong and then work quickly to find the solution or the road forward. The challenge with crises and leadership is that it can limit our ability to slow down and take perspective. Terrible things can happen when leaders fail to notice the data and information that is outside of their narrow immediate focus.
Life is a path that you beat in the walking… It is only in looking back you will see the path. Machardo
In Max Bazerman’s work The Power of Noticing: What leaders see, he makes the point that our own awareness limits our ability to notice or see essential things around us. We are at the mercy of the systemic and predictable ways we can fail to see or seek out critical information readily available in the environment. Daniel Kahneman (Thinking: Fast and Slow) also said that people too often act as if ‘What you see is all there is’, but opportunity doesn’t usually present itself directly in front of us. Our ability to ‘notice’ is a deep thinking process and sits outside the systemic and predictable fast brain processes.
Finding opportunity during stressful times relies upon creating the space for slow deep thoughts; a resource that feels like it is at a premium during these time. The higher the stress, the more we rely on our automatic decision-making system and the cognitive shortcuts to help us function. The problem is that they can actively stop us from seeing any opportunities amid the challenges. We need to make sense of the landscape, gathering different perspectives and future possibilities that we can bring into the present moment.
Given that a leader has the power and influence to sink a business or lift it to new heights, what can we do to help ourselves see the gaps and opportunities? How do we stay rational, and find the presence of mind to think creatively and seize opportunities that might come our way? A good place to start is supporting our brains to shift to a future-oriented mindset and to think about change on multiple levels. Here are some options to help you make this shift.
Seven strategies to develop your future-orientated mindset
Work with the brain, not against it.
We do this by managing the cognitive errors and bias. The brain, by design, is an ‘energy-minimising system, and we are in a deeply energy-draining situation’. This means our mental systems are predisposed to look for cognitive shortcuts that help us get things done with a minimal amount of effort.
Cognitive bias to watch for:
‘The Silver bullet’ bias– This is my name for a group of bias such as decision fatigue and framing effect. The problem is the same — favouring solutions that seem like a fast answer to all your problems. This often means we end up making decisions before we have explored other options.
Conservatism bias — where people emphasise original, pre-existing information over new data.
Confirmation bias — where people seek information that affirms existing beliefs while discounting or discarding information that might contradict them.
Status quo bias — People stay put, even in an undesirable situation, because the fear of loss is more significant than hope for gain.
Think on three horizons
(Helps people to develop future thinking in the face of adversity – B Sharpe 2013)
Horizon 1: Business as usual – How you currently do things. You can innovate but only from within the system. Gives you a predictable change curve, safe and ordered view of the future. Cognitive bias often holds us to this horizon.
Horizon 3: Visionary – A future filled with visionary ideas, multiple possibilities and driven by emerging needs; a future that might be at odds with current values and knowledge.
Horizon 2: Entrepreneurial – The zone of in-between. Using the shortcomings in the first and possibilities from the third find deliberate actions and transformation opportunities that come to light.
Gather a gang of unusual suspects.
Gather a group of out of the box thinkers and ask them to spend a couple of hours brainstorming, idea bashing and Horizon ‘three’ dreaming.
You can give them creative roles and freedom to destroy and reinvent your product, services and business model. Roles such as hacker, artist, child, activist, outlaw and explorer.
Even if you don’t use the ideas, it can be a powerful jumpstart to your thinking process and give you extra ‘ideas juice’ in the tank.
Self-care for mental performance
Work on the classic trifecta for improved mental performance:
- Get enough sleep
- Eat nutritiously. Fuel yourself and your mind well.
- Practice stress management techniques. Such as breathing exercises, journaling, time with nature.
Ground yourself with the 5,4,3,2,1 technique. The counting in this technique stops the world spinning in your head, and using the senses helps to bring us into the present and away from whatever task we have top of mind.
Here is how to do it.
- 5 – look around and name five things you can see
- 4 – Listen and name four things you hear
- 3 – Notice three things you can touch
- 2 – Name two things you can smell
- 1 – Finally name something you can taste. (example a sip of coffee, or water)
Ask better questions.
Good critical thinking questions are essential for abstract and complex work. Questions like?
- What do I wish I knew?
- Would additional information help me be better informed about this decision?
- What don’t I know and how might I find out?
- How can you adapt ___ to create ___?
Go for small plans
Trying to solve the big complex problems can trigger overwhelm very quickly. Rather than answer the big problem go for small bite-sized pieces. Change tiny pieces to keep moving forward and prevent getting stuck.
In the end, it will be the leaders who can gain perspective and notice more than just the immediate that will harness the competitive advantage that can come from this crisis. There are many challenges ahead, from supply chain complexity, geopolitical upheaval, pressure on the health system, changes in our education systems and many other difficulties that will be present for a sustained period. It would be a shame if as leaders, managers, and business owners we let such an abundance of opportunity in these challenges go to waste due to a failure to notice what was right next to us!