Last month I was invited to give a guest lecture on hyperacting, one of the four dimensions of HyperThinking, by Solvay MBA Professor, Antonio Nieto Rodriguez. Professor Nieto Rodriguez is the author of the book The Focused Organisation, and as we share the same publisher (Gower) it was perhaps inevitable that we would start to exchange ideas and experiences. The format of presenting to a group of MBA students was new to me, and it proved to be a stimulating encounter for both parties.

I titled my lecture “Making Things Happen”, and in it I sought to explore my own interest in turning abstract ideas into reality by invoking my personal experiences with starting projects and companies. I explained to my audience the incessant desire I have to “set things up”, as if the fact of turning an idea into a reality was, for me, almost an end in itself. I am motivated by more than just this, of course, and I went on to speak about things beyond these personal generalities; in particular I was keen to stress the critical importance of effectively executing new ideas in any field of management.

Take project management, for example. It is easy enough when circumstances are planned and predictable, but in an increasingly turbulent business world, unpredictable events disrupt our ready-made plans. This is when we need to be able to step back from, and out of, the situation, and revisit our basic perceptions – what I call hypershifting. This is even more important when facing a moment of crisis, but in my experience it is precisely at this critical juncture when this simple “step back” proves to be the most difficult thing to do; emotions run high, people have invested their egos and reputations in a project and cling to their beliefs to the last. Being able to admit that we can be wrong and that what we need to do is to change course is essential. Given how difficult it is to do this in trying circumstances hyperlearning tools can come in handy. Using concepts that force us to re-examine the situation from alternative perspectives is key, but simply being prepared for this, even more so.

In many ways, every project will contain both failures and successes. From that, it follows that the real skill that managers require consists in recognising what works and what doesn’t, and then “pivoting” – to use the term coined by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Start-Up – when the time is right. It is at that crucial pivotal moment, when we shift dramatically, that we are able to see new opportunities, correct mistakes and really start learning afresh. I hope that at least some of Professor Rodriguez’s students took that basic truism away from my lecture, and to judge from the inspiring Q&A session there were hopeful signs.

 

The students asked about how the kind of ultra-flexibility that I advocate could work in a large, complex and highly political organisation, where “adapting” could be viewed as a mistake and used against you. Clearly taking their cue from this line of thought, others thought that entrepreneurs in small companies would find it much easier to find the degree of flexibility needed.

On the first point, I suggested that the true star performers in large organisations are those who are able to quickly recognize mistakes and move on to the next project; they always have a positive attitude and are focused on results and not politics. It is, of course, important to have political allies and understand the dynamics in one’s organisation, but not to be constantly defending past mistakes and fighting yesterday’s battles.

The second point is interesting, but not, I suggested, necessarily true; in the competitive entrepreneurial setting, flexibility is clearly needed (to the point where the very survival of the company can depend on it), but it will be found that the same rules of innate conservatism that afflict large organisations often apply here: the founder/CEO often finds it difficult to recognise that his or her personal idea doesn’t have a market or simply doesn’t work. They frequently believe in the myth that persistence pays (which can be true, but only if you can recognize mistakes fast). So, being able to make decisions based on facts and not emotions is often actually more difficult in a small business than it is in a larger structure. The leaders of a small firm might feel that the business is their baby, and changing it would be an admission of personal failure.

My conclusion from this was that we need to know how to fail, and to learn from failure fast, but without being personally devastated: we need to convince ourselves that we can come back all the stronger from our experiences with failure.

I think that I managed to convince more than a few of my audience.