Will 2020 be the year when only the paranoid thrive?


Here’s some observations from my friend and the great strategist Richard Merrick.


Tom’s piece on Zebras’ evolution involving the development of stripe patterns that confuse and deter predators got me thinking. There is often safety in numbers, and collaboration usually wins over competition.


Whilst community matters, it does however depend whether the herd, can evolve in line with its environment, or we end up as toast (or in the case of Zebras, Tiger food) ?


So how do we make sure our community evolves in line with our challenges? Strategists back to the dawn of time have understood the importance of awareness.


“Deep knowledge is to be aware of disturbance before disturbance, to be aware of danger before danger, to be aware of destruction before destruction, to be aware of calamity before calamity

– Sun Tzu.


But if the herd is comfortable this makes us vulnerable – to hubris, ego and groupthink.


For both Zebras and Lions, it’s about the odds.


Humans are different. Our evolution has given us the neo cortex – that bit that sits above our mammalian brain, and a big prefrontal cortex – the bit that enables us to imagine, think, and make choices.


Herds act from instinct, packs learn from training, humans act by choice.


Well, most of the time.


But when we’re comfortable, and the grazing is good, we don’t use what we’ve been given and turn into herds or packs.


We do tomorrow what worked yesterday, when the system is benign enough (or so it appears) to reward that behaviour. In humans, we turn into herds when we allow groupthink to dominate – to follow the herd because it’s easier, or to become a pack, so we become dependent on our leader to find the prey.


Which means we just don’t see the change coming – we ignore the threats and become blind to the opportunities. Even whilst both are in plain sight.


Provident became a herd. Banks became packs.


We can easily do the same, because, unless, as Tom says


You think there’s no way your business will ever be a victim of circumstance… YOU’D BE RIGHT… but only if there’s a comma after the word think


Wilfred Bion, a famous psychoanalyst, spent much of his life focused on how little thinking we do, about our preference to go from emerging problem direct to convenient, available, pre-packaged solution, and how that leads us to trouble.


Physicists and Philosophers have agreed you can’t see what’s happening to a system when you are part of it. Fishes don’t know about water, and members of herds don’t know it’s a herd. Herds aren’t choices.


Many decades of relatively benign economic circumstances have led to education and training predicated on “best practice” and “solutions”. Not much thinking, just case studies from the past and cost-efficient selection,


but life has changed.


Maybe thinking that because we are successful, we will be entitled to remain successful. It’s comfortable to feel entitled.


Successful herds always have scouts – those at the edge who are looking out beyond the herd, looking for signals of change so that they can adapt in advance  rather than react when surprised. It’s a leadership skill.


Tech / AI creates a whole new set of messy jargon and fear a lot of which is proven to be detrimental to your business, yet 75% of CEOs, (42% of which have no plan), are pursuing these strategies!


Tech is akin in a military context to being shot at. When you are shot at everything goes to pot. Therefore the U.S. Army War College introduced the concept of VUCA to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world perceived as resulting from the end of the Cold War. Consultants have abused this ever since!


At that time of the cold war the MIG 15 was far superior to US’s F-86 Saber. John Richard Boyd, a colonel in the United States Air Force, is credited with developing a decision-making model the OODA loop is the assumption that time is the dominant factor in engagement and decisions need to be made from imperfect data.


The pilot who can engage the OODA loop in the shortest amount of time will have the advantage and will likely be victorious, because the opposition will be caught responding to circumstances that have already changed.


Boyd noticed that the F-86 Saber whilst technically inferior to the much faster MIG 15 the pilot in the F-86 Saber had a cockpit that enables all-round visibility.


This gave the F-86 Saber pilots a 360 view and awareness of their environment and risks.


One of the key capabilities to cope with VUCA is Awareness – (in German, “fingerspitzengefuehle” – literally, “fingertip feeling” ) involves an exquisite understanding of our environment such that we sense the precursors of change before they appear, in much the same way as many animals will be aware of earthquakes before they happen.


Awareness allows preparation time and consideration of options, and the time advantage over others to give us a source of incalculable advantage.


Conversely reacting like the tech obsessed CEO is almost always inferior to preparing.


Sun Tzu again:


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”


The development of awareness is one of, maybe the, most important characteristics of great leaders.


It arises  from a combination of mastery of ourselves, autonomy over our decisions, and connection with our surroundings, our resources and our adversaries.  It isn’t a gift – its hard work involving reflection, imagination and commitment. Often, it involves inviting the observations of others, the humility to accept criticism, and the knowledge that uncertainty is a constant.


Every organization that has succeeded over a reasonable length of time has had an awareness of its vulnerability.


They regularly run “red teams”, tasked with identifying ways to bring the organization  down.

Andrew Grove, CEO of Intel, famously said that “only the paranoid survives”.


History suggests he was right.


So, how do we do it?


Experience suggests two things are critical;

  1. firstly, to have a culture that collects and respects the perspectives of those at the global, customer, internal, and vendor interfaces of the organization. They are at the edge, and the edge is where the first tremors are felt.
  2. Secondly, to see the organization through another’s eyes. A critical friend in the herd, a leader who is unafraid to tell us the truth as they see it.


But raising tough issues in the herd, such as the engineer that knew about the VW emissions scandal is commonly a jobsworth scenario.


This approach is central to Winning Thinking. Using the winningthinking.uk tools during an initial two-hour session is enough to activate the leadership seismometer – to pick up those signals that might otherwise not be felt until we find ourselves having to react. When we sense the signals, we can prepare, adapt and take advantage to protect the herd.


The alternative is not pretty.


Resilience is vital in any business to recover from shock. There will always be something that finds a point of fragility. However, what Nicholas Taleb calls “anti-fragility” – the ability to anticipate a shock and use the energy it creates to advantage, is a far more attractive option.


As Tom says ““If you think there’s no way your business will ever be a victim of circumstance… YOU’D BE RIGHT… but only if there’s a comma after the word think


In the last 12 months we have challenged and or worked with hundreds of executives, from tech start-ups, retailers, VCs, mobile operators to Fortune 50 companies.


We are not advisors (we don’t know better), we aren’t interim managers (we don’t need to be there full time), we aren’t NXDs because we enjoy operational responsibility, but we are interested to be invited to join and roam with your herd from time-time.


If you would you be willing to let us join your herd click here for a 15-minute chat to explore this?


After which we can check your alignment and scope the financial return in a couple of hours.


Let’s kick off 2020 without a bang!