Resilience in a world without rules

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!

Pivotal

As fireworks lit up the night sky on the 31 December 2019, as we hugged loved ones, families and friends, as the sound of joy and happiness rang through the streets, we ushered in 2020. There was so much hope and optimism for what the new year was to bring. My personal new year’s social media message was the hope that 2020 lives up to its name and provides clarity in vision and purpose.

Reflecting on the year gone by and considering my new year’s wish, I believe that some sense of clarity of vision is precisely what 2020 brought. It made clear to the world that the way we’ve been treating the earth, not only mother nature itself but also the people living on this big rock, is not sustainable. It exposed the discrepancies in inequality. It showed us, not only the promise of technology, with progressive companies that embraced digital technologies, not having skipped a beat in transitioning to “Work from home”, but it also highlighted that we have so much to do to bring technology to the poor and marginalised. The future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.

I remember, at the onset of the pandemic, and when lockdown had just kicked in, you may recall, the rule at the time was not to wear a mask, not because the masks did not work, but because, as a nation, we didn’t have enough to go around. The World Health Organization wanted to prioritise the production of masks for use by our frontline workers. 

I went to the supermarket and had a brief chat with a lady packing the shelves. She was fearful that she did not have a mask, especially since she had a co-morbidity, that being diabetes. At the time, the supermarket expected her to come to work; however, they were not willing to provide her with a mask. Her anguish was exacerbated by the fact that the tellers all had masks and face shields that were provided by the company, however, because she was just a packer, she was treated differently.

She too was a frontline worker. Someone that, despite her worries and concerns about the virus, and her risk, still came to work, in part, because there was no other choice.

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist who served as minister of finance in Greece, during the height of the Greek economic crisis, in his latest book, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternate Present, writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

A key concept in Agile is the notion of “pivoting”. A few people I have spoken to over the years have alluded to the fact that they don’t like the word “pivot”. For me, pivoting is instrumental for agility and having the ability to adapt. To “pivot” is to look at the situation and based on the assessment to date, to decide to change course. It is to not only make the decision but also to make a concerted effort to take a different direction.

Pivoting is by no means an easy feat, especially if precious time, effort and resources are put in to build something with the belief that it will make a difference. There does, however, come a time, where pivoting is necessary. There is impermanence to everything. Impermanence does not only mean finality; it also implies progression. If things did not change, we would not have progression. Old things need to die to make space for the new.

That brings me to the title of this blog. We are at a pivotal time. Many of us have been caterpillars, consuming from this earth. A caterpillar’s only job is to eat, grow and to consume as much as possible. However, a caterpillar eventually goes into a cacoon where it goes through the process of metamorphosis, turning into a butterfly. The butterfly not only beautifies the planet but also visits a variety of flowers, and helps pollinate our world. 

Suppose we change the context of lockdown to reflect instead, the narrative that we were cocooned in our homes. We can look forward with a renewed sense of optimism and hope. We can strive to make a difference.

The pandemic is far from over, and we haven’t even yet started to consider the many other challenges facing us as a society, challenges such as climate change, inequality, poverty, health and justice for all. As a human race, we have a long way to go. However, if we consider this pivotal moment in history, we have a choice. We can choose which direction to take. We can choose a path where we work towards an imagined future, where, as a society, we strip away the veneer of greed and short-termism to reveal the prospect of a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Adapting vs Defining

At the University of California at Irvine, instead of assuming the best direction students would take to get to their classes, they just planted grass… They then waited a year, looked at where people had made the paths in the grass and paved the walkways there.

This is a fantastic example of feedback loops that are customer centric.

How can you use innovative ways to find the right path for your customers?

Finding your True North

The journey to success, whatever success means for you, is long and it is likely going to take time to get there. On this journey, we may get lost along the way. It is for this reason that we should establish what our True North is. True North is a key concept in Lean process improvement, and idiom that emerged from Toyota two decades ago. True North is used to describe the ideal state that a business, product or individual would like to continually strive to achieve.

In order to be guided towards our True North, we should set a clear vision. This vision should be displayed for all to see. We often talk about vision or guiding principle this as our “North Star”. If you happen to live in the northern hemisphere, the official name of the “North Star” is Polaris. This star is one degree off the position of True North, however, when following this star, will guide us in the right direction.

If however, you live in the Southern Hemisphere as I do, this “North Star” does not exist in our skies. This does not mean that we cannot find our True North. Instead, we have to be a bit more creative.

In the Southern Hemisphere, we have a constellation of stars known as the Southern Cross. This is a constellation with 4 prominent stars that form a slightly off-centre cross, with a smaller star to the bottom right of the cross, much like a beauty spot for the cross in the night sky. This Southern Cross, or “Crux”, which is the technical name to describe this constellation of stars.

This Southern Cross travels across the South Celestial pole, which is the point in space, where the Southern Cross rotates in the sky. Due to its rotation, the Southern Cross will sometimes appear to be upside down and other times, on its side, however, it remains recognisable, despite its orientation. While fairly recognisable, given that there are many stars that could potentially be in a configuration of the cross, to aid us in finding the Crux, there are two bright “pointer stars” to the left of the cross (when the cross is upright). These pointer stars line up and point towards the Southern Cross. Given the rotation of the earth, the Southern Cross remains geographically constant, and in order to find the Celestial South Pole, we have to draw an imaginary line out from the top of the Southern Cross across the bottom star, and continue that line out. We then look for the pointer stars and draw out an imaginary line perpendicular from the centre of the two pointer stars. The point in the sky where these two imaginary lines meet is the South Celestial Pole.

Another method is to estimate the distance of top star and bottom star of the Crux, multiply this distance four times out from the bottom star and that will give us an indication of where the South Celestial pole is. Face towards this point in the sky, and you’ll be facing South.

In order for us to find true north, find the celestial south pole, turn 180 degrees and this would be North.

Once we have our vision, or “True north” established, this will help us stay on course and not get pulled in other directions. Setting a clear vision helps guide us, but also shows us when we veering away from the direction we’re headed.

Real vision cannot be achieved in isolation from the idea of a purpose. Having a clear vision aligned to purpose is essential for ensuring alignment, focussing everyone on an end state goal.

The vision is in essence the aspirational description of what the company, product or project aims to achieve and sets long term direction for the team, using the power of imagination. This vision is fundamental to ensure alignment in the team.

Without a clear vision, there is a higher likelihood of increased ambiguity in the organisation. Priorities are not explicit, and focus is not directed.

The Six Million Dollar Man | Die Man van Staal

In a fast pace and ever-changing world, digital transformation is a reality that individuals and companies must embrace. More and more, people and businesses need leverage these digital technologies to become bionic. This notion of being bionic is key to embracing uncertainty. What does it mean to be bionic? In the 80s, there was a science fiction television series The Six Million Dollar Man.  The opening scene starts with an old green screen computer terminal, with the word

CY’ BORG_                                _

being typed out letter for letter. The text then proceeds to display on the screen:

“A HUMAN BEING WHOSE ORIGINAL           _

HUMAN PARTS HAVE HAD TO BE               _

REPLACED TO ONE EXTENT OR                 _

ANOTHER BY MACHINES THAT                  _

PERFORM THE SAME FUNCTION S.”           _

The series is about Steve Auston, a former astronaut and United States Air Force Colonel, who was severely injured in an aircraft test. He is then taken to a lab and undergoes surgery to “rebuild” parts of his body, including his right arm, left eye, and both his legs using technology. These “Bionic implants”, enhance his strength, speed and vision beyond human norms.  His eyes allow for a 20:1 zoom vision, and his limbs allow for super strength and speed.

These technologies do not replace his human capabilities, but instead, augmented his capabilities, to allow him to perform with more speed, strength and accuracy.

Similarly, businesses today need to become more bionic, leveraging new technologies to augment humans in achieving better results. Companies need to leverage data and technology to improve insights, move at speed and scale, and drive improved customer centricity.

While Steve Austin’s bionic implants cost six million dollars in 1973, this equates to approximately, 36 million dollars in 2019, the cost of technology, through Moores law has become exponentially cheaper. The law developed by Gordon E. Moore, in 1965 is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years. The observation also considered that, as you increase the number of transistors on a circuit, the costs start to decrease at the same time, which means that you have the doubling of price/computing performance.

Which is more Bionic?

The illustration below considers how business should be considering leveraging technology. If I was to pose the question to you, “Which is more bionic?” the robot, which is a mechanical and command driven device or the human leveraging technology to make her stronger, faster and who can leverage data and technology for better insights. I would like to think that being bionic is being human, augmented by technology.

While we consider technology from a digital perspective, this is not always the case. We need to think about how we apply this to all technologies and innovations. Wilbur Wright, the bike mechanic and his brother Orville Wright were aviation pioneers and innovators of heavier-than-air-flight at the turn of the century. When history was made at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur Wright mustered all his strength and mental capacity to thrust the gliding machine to flight, it was man with machine, and not man against machine. In Satya Nadella’s book, “hit refresh”, he suggests that we don’t think of aviation as “artificial flight”, it is simply flight. In the same way, we shouldn’t think of technological intelligence as artificial, but rather as intelligence that serves to augment human capabilities and capacities.