What does it mean to be ready?
With the world’s increased uncertainty and volatility, it feels all the more important to get prepared, and yet, harder to do so, as we don’t know what is to come. Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance, the 5 P’s, is attributed to former US Secretary of State, James Baker – so this isn’t a new idea. However, the changing context perhaps draws our attention to a more profound form of readying.
I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days observing the team at Bath Rugby preparing for a forthcoming game. This was a foggy Monday and Tuesday at the end of November, with a game against last year’s semi-finalists, Harlequins, coming up on the Friday. I sat in on 6.30am coaches’ meetings, discussions about medical, nutrition and athletic performance, briefings with the playing squad, video analysis and, of course, training itself. The thoroughness in which last week’s performance was dissected, this week’s opposition was analysed and how this information shaped the training plans for the week was impressive. I remember attention being given to the detail of catching the ball from the kick-offs, something that had been poor in previous games. There was very specific coaching – “look through your hands, see the ball into them”.
We dropped the first kick-off on Friday night.
The game is never the same as the training ground. At the Rec in Bath, there are 14,000 people watching, the weather is different, it’s dark and floodlit – your heart is beating faster as the adrenaline kicks in. No matter how many drills you do, a great performance is always more than precise execution of what you have practiced. A game of rugby is complex, not just complicated. A performance emerges from all the factors that have been ’submerged’ in your preparation, and everything that has come before.
It is the same in business. Our performance cannot be traced directly and simply to individual factors. There is a complex soup of conditions that enable us to sustain, (or not), great performance. Our organisations are not complicated mechanical systems, like a jumbo jet, where everything goes together one-way, comes apart, and can be put back again. They are complex human systems, which display similar properties to mayonnaise – mix two things together (oil and eggs) and, with the right skill, something new emerges (mayonnaise), and there is no way back to the original components.
The preparation that goes on in professional sport, is not just to hone skills, but to submerge a complex set of conditions (strength, conditioning, sleep, mental wellbeing, relationships with and understanding of teammates, tactics and much, much more), so that in the uncertain and volatile conditions of a competitive game something special can emerge.
In our businesses we need to be asking: What are the conditions for that precede excellent organisational performance? How do these submerge in people and the systems they operate within, so that something special can emerge?
Nora Bateson, describes this happening in nature:
“Before the flower is picked, the plant grew; before that, the seed opened; and before that, the bacteria, water, and minerals in the soil made mud and created the specific ecological womb in which that particular seed could open. The mixing of many orders of relational processes made the possibilities for what could emerge. Relationships build relationships build relationships build relationships…and then after a good deal of responses to responses in multi-directional oscillation, there is emergence.”
With everything that has gone before having a bearing of what emerges, how do we control what emerges? Put simply, we can’t. It is an unpredictable process – it’s one of the reasons we love sport, on any given day the underdog can come out on top, as something surprising happens. What we can do is make it more likely that what emerges is for the good of the system – is ecologically sound. Unhealthy things can appear too – insidious factors that gradually destroy health and performance. These occur when there is a narrowness of ‘preparation’ or submerging, where we attempt to focus on the few critical things, at the expense of the wider conditions that create a coherent context.
Just as creating a world-beating sports team takes time, and attention to many factors, the same is true in all our organisations. We have to tend to all the things we do, day-in and day out, considering the ways in which our action may contribute to a healthy performing system. We have found these questions useful in considering what is helps us ready for the future – a mental checklist to guide our actions:
- Does this connect with or clarify our higher purpose or long-term direction of travel?
- In doing this, will it increase people sense of agency, their willingness and ability to act?
- How will relationships be positively changed?
- Where are we stuck in our thinking or our behaviour – does this disrupt something?
Even with all the best preparation, we will sometimes drop the ball. Of course, this itself is part of readying for what is still to come, as we navigate moment-by-moment into the future.
Nora Bateson, January 2021