Preparing for different conditions is a critical part of long voyages. Like in boating or baseball, unexpected situations can arise in business where success depends on identifying threats and opportunities, picking up on signals, the ability to react, decisive action, experience, and vision. All of the above can be practiced through scenarios. But how to lead something that does not yet exist?
Modern companies and people must tolerate uncertainty
Let us start with baseball. You trust the fielding team. The pitcher is competent and so is every one of the fielders. What changes the situation is the opponent. Instead of their well-known star player, a complete wild card steps up to bat. No one knows how they hit. They will certainly hit the ball, but will it be a soaring fly ball, an unpredictable curveball, or a fierce drive that can pass through the outfield in a flash at knee height? What can you do?
As in baseball, one must prepare for wild cards at sea. The change in weather conditions is often swift and potentially dramatic. In the end, the captain needs to only care about the weather that they actually face. It is a cold comfort that there is calm and sunny weather five miles away if they have to sail through a downburst.
Uncertainty affects boating, baseball, and business – you and me as well. The capacity to tolerate uncertainty is a must for people today if they wish to remain sane. For companies, the ability to operate in uncertainty is the only way to survive and succeed. That is what is at stake. Life.
Responses are faster with a playbook
This is why baseball teams practice. It is also why boats must have trained captains and crews. The captain’s word is law, but instructions are not enough when docking in a dangerous spot with high crosswind – the situation must be prepared for beforehand. There is no time to debate or discuss, or the boat will hit the rocks in seconds. All responses must be instinctive. And even if the course of action is known, boating will teach one thing better than many other hobbies: sometimes the plan and destination need to change because of the weather. Sometimes changes are wise for making the journey tolerable.
Wise captains concentrate on a positive vision to keep their crew or team in high spirits; courageous, confident, and creative. The captain will explain where they are headed and why. While the captain knows that their vessel may face a hellish storm in the worst case, and they prepare the crew to work in brutal conditions, they will not aim to face the worst storms. Likewise, they will not lull themselves or the crew into thinking that the voyage will forever be in sunny weather and favourable winds. Instead, they prepare for a variety of changing conditions. They keep the destination and route crystal clear in their mind but remain ready to make the necessary changes.
Choosing a direction and operating model based on signals
What is it that makes a captain choose an alternative route in time or a game leader to give their team the right instructions? Intuition. Experience. On the surface, these two words mean different things, but they are the same in essence. They describe an understanding of what is likely to happen next and how to best navigate the situation. This understanding is rarely the result of deliberate analysis and consideration, but instead a gut feeling.
It takes practical experience born from trial and error. The boldness to make seemingly unconventional decisions is also required. Again, the boldness is acquired from experience. It grows from trial and error. These are referred to as experiments in the context of design thinking.
Weak signals, slight signs of the conditions changing, are crucial for predicting the future. Seafarers listen to weather broadcasts and try to find reliable wind forecasts. They have to weigh which service is the most accurate. Everyone will be tuned in. Well-prepared captains can also see the faint natural signs around them: the clouds, the surface of the water, and the behaviour of birds. And not just the captain – the whole crew. Once waves turn from shiny to matte and begin to take on ripples and hints of oil, the situation is already upon you. A gale may rise at any time, whatever the weather forecasts may indicate.
Stories and pictures prompt more action than spreadsheets
In addition to predictions, the captain can improve their readiness by better understanding life at sea, including seas other than the one they are currently sailing on. They listen to stories about heroic exploits, survival strategies, how to manage different ships, and what decisions different crews have made and to what end. On beautiful summer nights they will sit down with their crew on a smooth cliff by the coast or the boat’s deck to share the stories. These are invaluable moments. They are the discussions, deliberations, and the building of a shared understanding in fair weather that strengthens the seafaring ability and preparedness of the whole crew for tough situations. And best of all, these story times – including baseball team sauna parties and road travel for games – build the team spirit, memories, and motivation to carry on, whether idle in dead calm or in the midst of a raging storm. Or when a wild card batter really surprises you.
How to lead what does not yet exist?
Working with an uncertain and constantly changing future poses many challenges. There is the responsibility for the future of the company and its personnel, to maintain a carefully constructed brand and its fine-tuned machine that runs like a Swiss watch in the conditions that it was made for. But what happens when everything changes?
Scenarios can help you prepare. These are used to predict and describe actions in various paths to the future. The first thing in creating scenarios is to clarify our history, strengths, and purpose. Keeping operations logical and continuous in all circumstances is vital to allow all our stakeholders – customers, personnel, and partners – to predict their own in various situations and remain compatible with ours. We can then assess how desirable the scenarios are compared to our values.
To create a winning playbook, we must look outside and analyse where the world is headed and what will create actual value for our customers and stakeholders. This means reinforcing social and cultural analysis as part of customer insight, which you can read about in Anni Ojajärvi’s blog post (in Finnish): Strategian päivittäminen Covid-19 -ajassa – mitä strategiajohtaja miettii?
Scenarios are created to prepare for uncertainties in line with the company’s strategy and current social trends. The assumptions of the scenarios are described, and their connected signals and leading indicators are defined. These signals could be changes in the behaviour of competitors, customers, or suppliers, as well as changes in economic conditions or legislation. Scenarios describe the expected interactions of operators, highlighting the opportunities and threats related to them.
Take the chance now to create new value
Most of what we do is what we are used to doing. A good time to renew is when a familiar method comes into question: when someone or something alters the structure and rhythm of our lives. In a crisis, it is natural to seek creative solutions to a problem, such as when the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to rely on takeaway and artists to hold digital live concerts. However, only those reforms with cultural relevance, meaning true customer value, will live on after the crisis.
This requires the ability to read the environment, training best practices in advance, building intuition and experience, supporting trust and courage, and the ability to act according to the situation, whether proactively or reactively. For help on how to get started or where to go next, get in touch with us! Our experienced specialists can help you at every stage: finding new customer value, strategic customer insight, defining indicators, designing new solutions, prototyping, experiments, deploying a learning strategy, and more.
Design thinking as part of strategy making
We have published a guide on the subject: how to achieve tangible results with a human-centric, multidisciplinary, and iterative approach. Its typical application is the development of new business and services.
Our guide describes the difference between traditional strategy making and design thinking, and we explain why these should be combined. The guide will provide you with clear practical instructions for getting started and bringing the methods and benefits of design thinking to your organisation.