Monday, February 7, 2011

Sheltered from Success

I've learned a lot about the mindset of competition, and of winning the last few years while training to meet my goals and learning a tremendous amount about physiology, nutrition, hydration and personal limits. In the process I've gotten a good glimpse into the attitude athletes develop to succeed.

Athletes don't give up or quit because something looks or appears impossible. You actually have to prove to them that they can't win, or beat you, by beating them. They won't accept a prospective outcome. As they say, "that's why they play the game". Epic upsets happen all the time in sports when underdogs win. The point of competition is to put to rest speculation about what could be by execution to create a certainty.

Looking back over 25 years in corporate life, it was quite an epiphany that this isn't what happens in corporate life at all. Corporations very rarely bet their whole existence by fighting against long odds. A good example was the way GM saw the handwriting on the wall for years, yet did nothing to improve its long-term competitive position. IBM nearly succumbed to the same.

In general, corporate management is about managing risks so you NEVER bet the company, but take the sure bet, pick the low-hanging fruit, and hope some new disruptive technology or force doesn't render that strategy a slow death or outright disaster. In short, corporations do local optimization, not global optimization. They don't look for an optimal solution starting from a radical new departure point. They look for an optimal solution starting near where they are right now, and figure that will be good enough. Pickett's Charge was a local optimization. MacArthur's landing at Inchon was a global optimization.

When you look at companies that have succeeded wildly, they are headed up by individuals, or a small teams that believe in themselves and will fight for their vision - usually a radical vision. These are risk-takers, not risk managers. They will only accept globally optimal solutions - or failure. They may fail, but not until they have given it their all. Failure is something that must be proven to them. They aren't going to take anyone's word, or forecast, or prognostication for it. They're going for it.

I find I'm starting to approach decision making from a whole new perspective now, making the most of the opportunity sports affords one to take the great risks required to break through perceived limits. We may not be afforded the chance to globally optimize at our corporate jobs, but through sports, we can learn how this is successfully accomplished.

The art of winning isn't a spectator sport, and it doesn't come from looking at a predicted chain of events, and managing risks against that. It comes from putting your toe on the line and executing a dynamic, morphing plan to find a way to a win. The USMC expresses this as Boyd's OODA Loop. After 25 years working in risk management, that's Quite an epiphany!

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