Improvise, adapt and overcome

Clint Eastwood is a personal favorite – as an actor and director. Eastwood is an icon of the American Dream. Hardworking and versatile, his work ethic and eye for opportunity have made him an integral part of the entertainment industry for decades. Some of us remember him in the TV series, rawhide. From spaghetti westerns to dirty harryto direct masterpieces like Grand Torino andInvictus, Eastwood continues to push the boundaries of excellence. Eastwood’s mojo can be summed up in a quote from his character, Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway Heartbreak Ridge, “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.” What better way to get into this sequence of value creation?

Improvise, adapt and overcome! In fact, the line reminds me of former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. McColl attributed everything valuable he knew about leadership to Marine Corps training. His mantra was “When in doubt, attack!” McColl celebrated his Gunnys by giving them crystal grenades to commemorate the superior results as they improvised, adapted and overcame.

McColl’s style is intriguing and worthy of further reflection. How could a leader charge without looking like they were playing whac-a-mole at the carnival? The answer lies in the fusion of strategic intent and preparation. When the leader and his trained team have a clear view of the target, the “Attack!” Mantra goes well with “improvise, adapt and overcome”.

Consider some critical thinking questions. What is the vision for the company? Besides, why does anyone – especially employees and customers – care? Until these questions are solidly answered, consider your team free from basic guiding principles. Assuming you have solid answers, next ask the “What?” Question. In other words, what differentiable actions will the team prioritize to bring the vision to life. That’s the strategy. The strategic intention is defined in connection with goals.

The team is now ready for the “How?” questions or tactics. This is where Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome separates winners from street killers. All competitive arenas are dynamic and mutate to changing conditions. So the tactics change. The ability to change quickly without compromising strategic intent is a desirable core competency of the team.

How could a geographically dispersed – even global – team accomplish this? The answer must start with shared values. While it is naïve to assume that all employees and the company share the same values, it is imperative that their values ​​are compatible. Teams can benefit from diversity; however, they cannot work when values ​​are conflicting. This is one of the chronic mistakes in recruiting. How useful is it, for example, to apply to PETA as a furrier or as a vegan in a packaging company? Stats are the mortar under the bricks that form the basis of execution.

When the values ​​are clear and aligned, tactical changes within the spans of control are appropriate risks. The team has ground rules or rules of engagement for improvising and adapting to overcome. How might that look in practical application? Suppose a teammate was on the other side of the globe. A 12-hour time difference could not only complicate things, but also suggest that communications were disrupted and a game-changing decision was at stake. Is the teammate sufficiently equipped with the experience, skills, responsibility, strategic intent, and rules of engagement to make the decision? If not, leaders should reconsider the organization’s training and development process. Case studies, post-mortem deals, and mentoring are all beneficial to the cause. Conditioned professionals are then better prepared to say “no” in sticky situations. Alternatively, they can also confidently take calculated risks.

What is a good decision if the teammate is sufficiently equipped? A practical principle is “satisfy,” or enough knowledge to make a choice with a high probability. Another way to phrase this is the Pareto Principle or 80/20. Interestingly, research shows that analysis paralysis does not improve decision quality. Experienced teammates who think they have enough information to make a statistically likely decision should go for it. Until professionals know everything about a decision, the opportunity can be missed. Unless professionals deal with life and death situations, post-graduation mid-course is acceptable. Most achievements can be changed without jeopardizing the goal. Again, alignment with strategic intent should be the guiding principle.

Satisficing has an additional practical benefit: First Mover Advantage. When pros think they know enough to get started, staying ahead of the competition can be a bonus. Especially in virtual industries, where investment in physical assets is almost questionable, scalability enables dominance almost overnight. Googles and Facebooks are hard to oust. The laws of physics help first movers. Momentum and inertia complement the change management aspects of the initiative.

“Improvise, adapt and overcome” are crucial for the middle class. The majority of jobs are created here for openers. The health of the economy depends on smaller companies. Flexibility and time-to-market are essential. Smaller companies are less burdened by the groupthink, bureaucracy and politics of larger companies. This refers to the storming phase of Tom Davenport’s forming, storming, norming, and performing cycle. The dexterity of the middle class can both shape and defragment markets faster than most large companies can understand the same market dynamics. The point is summed up in the saying how easily a dingy in an ocean can turn against a battleship in a bathtub.

Is there a catch? Of course! As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says, “It’s always the first day!” What does Bezos mean? The competitive process is continuous. Surviving today’s storm once does not grant immunity from future storms. Kansans, for example, expect tornadoes every year. Winners stand out between the storms.

One of the more interesting things I observe about mid-market private equity portfolio companies is that either (i) the investment thesis is rarely operationalized with the portfolio company’s executive team and/or (ii) the plan is created only once at the start of the investment . While budget processes may be an annual routine, strategic planning is not. This is precarious on several levels. Let’s explore a few.

Organic and acquisitive growth are the cornerstones of the investment thesis. Organic growth tends to drive headcount. Some of these employees may be C-level and supervisors. Interestingly, this new leader did not participate in the planning process that may have created their position, and consequently they may not be aligned with the plan. These people have no malicious intent. Rather, they are trapped in the “unconscious ignorance” of relevant information. In addition, they may have knowledge of the competitive environment that could change the plan to their advantage – either offensively or defensively.

Acquisition growth adds another company with a different culture into the mix. Aside from the ugly odds of a successful integration, the acquired company may (i) be unfamiliar with the granularity of the plan and/or (ii) have an execution paradigm alien to the integration logic. Who compensates for the discrepancy?

A final point is relevant to strategic intent. Leadership teams can be grounded in strategic intent and make good tactical changes, but fail to communicate the changes to the leaders of the fundamental business model processes. These omissions often lead to unintended consequences. Examples include misallocated resources and workflow bottlenecks.

Ascension is the mother of all disasters. To make improvisation, adaptation, and defiance a competitive differentiator, we must embrace Patrick Lencioni’s admonition to continually promote organizational clarity. This includes the metrics and communication mechanisms to drive both alignment and progress toward goals. “Gunny” Tom Highway did this to ensure his company of soldiers was successful.

We started with films. Let’s end with a couple. flight of the phoenix and Apollo 13 are wonderful films that demonstrate “improvise, adapt and overcome”. in the flight of the phoenix, the strategic intent was to escape alive from a desert crash. The survivors constructed a single-engine plan from the debris from the crash and flew to safety. in the Apollo 13, the crew, NASA and contractors suffered a space explosion, salvaged remaining resources to cobble together a “lifeboat” and returned the crew safely to Earth. Analysts described the mission as a “successful failure” – no moon landing, but no dead crew either.

None of us are as smart as all of us. When strategic intent is in the hands of prepared professionals, value is created. If not, the scenario looks more like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” Since value creation is no laughing matter, “improvise, adapt and overcome” makes a lot more sense in medium-sized companies.