Fluidity is defined as the state of being unsettled or unstable. In other words, to have a sense of changeability. Bruce Lee epitomised fluidity and practiced this ability to be in a constant state of flow which is a state of intense focus. Being focused is also knowing how to adapt and respond as necessary. Lee famously quoted:
“Be Water, My Friend.
Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.”
Chinese martial arts, particularly Wing Chun, the discipline of kung fu (or “Gung fu”, as pronounced in native Cantonese) was a very traditional practice. While Wing Chun was widely practised in China, there was a reluctance to train people that were not of Chinese origin. There was also a unwillingness to change the method of teaching, as these ancient martial arts techniques were the same techniques that were taught and handed down over the ages.
In her new book, “Be Water, My Friend” (I thoroughly enjoyed it, and is a highly recommended read), Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, explores the true teachings of Bruce Lee. In the book, she explains that when Lee opened his Wing Chun martial art school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, Lee made slight changes to some traditional moves and techniques. He was teaching a somewhat modified form of Wing Chun, with altered movements and shifts in techniques that enable a quicker response, even though, in general, he was still teaching Wing Chun.
Not only was he adapting techniques, but Bruce Lee was teaching people of all different races and backgrounds. He was also teaching martial arts to women, which traditionally was not permitted.
The old-guard, particularly the more traditional instructors in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, did not like this and challenged Lee to a fight with one of their champion fighters. The terms of the contest were that if Lee lost, he would have to stop teaching, and if he won, he would be able to continue teaching his modified methods.
Lee agreed to the fight, but since this was a real fight, with real stakes and a possibility that the result could threaten his livelihood, Lee insisted that there would be “no rules”. After conferring, they agreed. When the fight began, Lee came out in full force. The match lasted about three minutes and was a very unorthodox fight. Lee won the fight.
After the fight, Lee was sitting on the pavement, looking forlorn and contemplative. Lee’s wife, Linda Lee, who was at the match to support her husband, approached him, and asked him, “Aren’t you happy? You won!”. Lee responded that he won, but he did not perform the way he wanted to perform and realised that he was not prepared for a situation without rules.
At that point, he realised that his traditional training, with all the rigid techniques, went out the door because it was not a conventional fight. At that moment, Lee was able to reflect, which enabled him to create his own form of martial arts, known as “Jeet Kune Do”.
More often than not, businesses continue to operate with some form of rigidity. Workflows, processes, approvals, and hierarchy are put in place to manage the flow of command. This bureaucracy often stifles and slows down innovation. Decision-making may be delayed since we have to wait for the next executive committee meeting or quarterly Board meeting before proceeding with initiatives.
At the same time, we know that the world continues to change at an unprecedented pace. In this new world, exponential continues to dominate. Whether it’s exponential growth in digital technologies, the cost of renewables energy continues to decrease exponentially, or even the exponential propagation of the Coronavirus. We simply cannot keep up. Regulation, policies, rules, and businesses struggle to keep pace with ever-increasing change.
It can be difficult to unlearn or to selectively forget the past and give up your traditional ways. Generally, leaders have spent years achieving their success through their particular style of management. They’ve often used conventional methods of governance, traditional ways of managing projects, known funding mechanisms and have been managing people in much the same way, through performance appraisals, bonus schemes, KPIs etc. Leaders have run and grown organisations in a similar way that has been done for decades. While this style may have worked in the past, it does not necessarily mean that it will work in the future. As Bruce Lee’s reflection highlighted, traditional training may not work in a new world where the rules are unclear and uncertain.
With the information revolution upon us, increasing climate change, a deepening humanitarian crisis that could stem from the pandemic, as well as a myriad of other global challenges and opportunities, leadership and ways of work will need to adapt. An agile mindset, creativity and innovation are not only increasingly relevant but increasingly necessary. We need to embrace smaller, diverse teams, drive more autonomy, increase simplicity and focus. We need to be adaptable in the way we develop and design solutions. Additioanlly, we must create products and solutions that are human-centric and sustainable.
Agility is all about how to be more like water. Can we switch? Can we pivot? Can we move away from only profit-driven businesses, but instead businesses that are purpose-driven with profit? We have to continuously question whether we are doing the right thing, and deciding whether we should be trying something new. Can we design new projects, businesses and operating models that are more flexible and agile?
Flexibility and agility bring resilience. Imagine a wooden skewer. If you put enough pressure on a skewer and try to bend it, it will snap in two. Now, imagine a freshly picked, soft green twig from a tree, about the same length and width of the skewer. If you put pressure on either end of the twig, it will be pliable and bend instead of snap. The twig, being more flexible is more resilient than the skewer. It can withstand more change.
In a world where rules matter less and can be so ambiguous, where the playing fields are so different, flexibility and agility are essential. The more rigidity you have, the easier you can break. The greater your flexibility and agility, the more likely you are to remain successful and sustainable.
Resilience is about having challenges and difficulties come at you and finding creative ways around it.
Lee said, “Instead of opposing force by force, one should complete an opposing movement by accepting the flow of energy from it and defeat it by borrowing from it. This is the law of adaption.”
To innovate and reinvent requires us to look at new ways of doing things. To consider what was there before, but to know we can do it differently and better. This requires human creativity. Machines are very good at logic, but humans thrive when they are in a more creative mindset. Human beings love coming up with good ideas and evolving those ideas into reality. Whether it’s writing a book, building an AI algorithm, cooking, drawing, or designing a reusable rocket that will take us to mars, creativity allows humans to flourish.
We shape the future, and agility is a future-based mindset.
Strategy is all about looking forward, considering instances of perceivable change that are sometimes beyond our core knowledge base and then imagining and creatively designing and innovating a shared future through experimentation and iteration. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagine the future you want to create and start building it.
It seems apt to end with a final word from Bruce Lee:
Many people are bound by tradition. When the elder generations say “no” to something, then these people will strongly disapprove of it as well. If the elders say that something is wrong, then they will also believe it’s wrong. They seldom use their mind to find out the truth and seldom express sincerely their real feelings. The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism and traditions, which are nothing more than a “formula” laid down by these elder people’s experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula.”
Be water, my friends!