Resilience: Operational Excellence And Innovation
Editor | On 11, Jan 2018
If you ever have the opportunity to talk to an ultra-marathon athlete you will quickly ascertain that they see the world differently to most. A lay-person tends to think that the ability to run an ultra-marathon is achieved through training. Gradually building ability by running progressively greater distances. This is classic Operational Excellence thinking. I propose very few ultra-marathon runners are Operational Excellence people. I propose instead that when they tell you that running very long distances is about 10% physical fitness and 90% mental toughness, they’re telling you that the critical skills that will get you to the finish line are largely about developing the mental ability to deal with whatever the race deals you. Race success comes from extreme resilience, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, no matter what happens, whether it be blisters, running out of water, plummeting night-time temperatures or midday desert conditions. Ultra-marathon runners are, I believe the go-to people when it comes to the skills needed to plough your way through the trials and tribulations of at least the initial phases of any innovation project. High mental resilience and persistence are the two dominant capability needs when it comes to innovation. The opposite end of the spectrum to Operational Excellence:
I know this because one of the SI team is an ultra-marathon runner. He also got married recently. To a person who, I think the following story will reveal, sees life from the Operational Excellence end of the societal spectrum. The story is told in her – Operationally Excellent – words. I’ve changed one or two names in order to protect the innocent:
We were at the check-in desk, congratulating ourselves on the fact that the cheery lady had accepted our unevenly distributed suitcases without hesitation. That was the problem we HAD considered. The real issue came out of the blue:
“Do you have your visas?”
We were amazed. We held bona fide British passports. We had had British passports when they were proper blue ones with a crest on the front. India was part of the Commonwealth. Why would we need a visa? But we did. And we didn’t have one. And without one, we could not travel.
This was when the difference in our personalities kicked in. I began mentally downgrading out honeymoon. We could go home and spend a week in the UK , apply for the visa and then travel out for the second week. Not ideal, but at least we would be together. Kobus, meanwhile, was reviewing all the options available from downright impossible through tricky to straightforward, probably with a brief stopover in slightly illegal. Not going was not an option for him. We would travel as far as we could and then make the best of wherever we happened to be.
Quickly martialing his thoughts, he gleaned as much information as possible from the sympathetic clerk and then made for the computers. We had to get a visa organised before the flight took off. We had about two hours.
The internet revealed that a visa was indeed essential and there were varying opinions about how it should be obtained. In an ideal world, we would have applied for it three months in advance and received it is plenty of time. It was not an ideal world.
I rang the Indian Consulate in London. The answerphone kicked in. A second number gave me an inflexible official who informed me that it would take five days and a personal interview to get the paperwork. Again, I accepted the loss of the holiday, feeling very disappointed but assuming that no meant no.
During my call, Kobus had been trawling the net looking for alternative options. He found a company in Australia who could organise a visa in five hours for a fee. It was our best chance and he was about to take it.
Back we went to the check in desk where we assured the nice lady that our applications for our visas were in hand. We also reminded her that the first two legs of our journey did not require visas as our connections in Istanbul and Abu Dabi were not in India. She allowed us our boarding passes and let us through to the departures lounge, although she warned us that we would not be allowed the final leg of our journey without a visa. We began to imagine an unplanned stop in Turkey or the UAE. How does it feel to be deported, I wondered.
My usual worries about hi-jackings, terrorists and an albatross in the jet engine were forgotten. Instead, I was fretting about the internet rogues who were about to empty our bank accounts on the pretext of making us speedy visas. If Kobus worried about that, he did not show it, but rapidly took photographs, downloaded forms, typed in dates of birth and moved money between accounts. Being in Australia, the company offering the visa service was, of course, in a different time zone. We had twenty-nine minutes to complete the application before the office closed. If we delayed until we were in Istanbul, our next access to internet, we would be too late. The gates had opened some time before and the other passengers were on board. Still frantically phoning, we boarded too. The phone calls and emails continued. The flight attendant asked us to turn off our phones and I did so obediently. The plane was taxiing to the runway and Kobus begged another ten seconds and as the stewardess returned with her firm expression, insisting that the phone be closed, the message pinged: the money had left our account; we had completed the application in time; whether it was a real application or a scam we could not know until we reached Istanbul.
There was nothing to do now but watch the inflight film (La La Land) and sleep. I watched; he slept. On touchdown, before restrictions were lifted, he switched on his phone. An email was there confirming that our application had been received and was being processed. The actual visas would not be ready until after we had landed in Cochi, India , but we would receive interim visas via email at 08:00, thirty minutes before we were due to land in Abu Dabi. Those emailed documents SHOULD be enough to get us onto the Ethiad flight to Cochi. If not, we would think again.
Again, we had a long flight when we could do nothing to influence our destiny except pray, which I don’t mind telling you I did! Several films, a couple of inflight meals and a snooze or two later we descended into Abu Dabi. As Kobus switched on his phone, an email came in and he found the interim visas attached. They looked like a photo shop job and we were doubtful. There was a strong chance that they were bogus forms, but we had to hope they would work.
As we shuffled forward in the long queue, we saw passenger after passenger hand over their essential paperwork. I became more and more nervous. I am one of those people who feel guilty going through duty free with nothing more incriminating than a stick of rock and a regular sized block of Toblerone. The thought of being arrested for trying to smuggle through an air terminal with a fake document was way out of my comfort zone. Still, I had to give it a shot now. It might possibly be a genuine visa. And it had cost a fortune. And Kobus had worked like a Trojan to get this far. It was worth this last risk.
Deliberately last, in the hope that the boarding team would be in a rush to get us through, we faced the stern, pristine official at the boarding desk. He asked for our visas. With a truly English cool I did not feel, I turned to Kobus.
“It’s on your phone isn’t it, love?”
Equally calm, he agreed and showed the uniformed attendant the pictures on his phone. For an incredibly long minute, he studied the screen, then gestured us through. We were on our way!
Once in Cochi, another email arrived and this time the real documents were attached. We showed them to the impassive immigration personnel, who were working with some new technology which clearly had teething problems. We gave electronic thumb prints – after some ten minutes of trying – and suddenly we were through. Proper, pretty, paper visas were passed under the glass screen and our honeymoon could begin.
And so I received my first life lesson in Innovation. You don’t have to accept either of the obvious options. There will be a third way, if you search hard enough to find it, and maybe you actually CAN have your cake and eat it!
When I’ve allowed other Operation Excellence focused people read the story, their usual first reaction is ‘why didn’t he plan ahead?’ This is how Operational Excellence people tend to see the world. That’s why they’ll never run ultra-marathons. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it fails to acknowledge the massive benefits that come from having the confidence that no matter what adversity life throws at you, you continue to have supreme confidence you’ll prevail: there will always be a way, so therefore we should always keep going working on that assumption. It’s a skill that’s extremely rare and getting rarer. I suspect part of the reason being that, in a world still dominated by Operational Excellence thinking, that it can drive people at that end of the spectrum completely mad.
Let’s think of that as perhaps the next contradiction to be solved: it’s not ultimately about Innovation OR Operational Excellence, it’s about getting the best of both worlds. Which might be achieved by, as in this case, marrying the solution. Or if you can’t manage that, maybe it is about moving away from the Scott of the Antarctic view of the world and much more towards that of Roald Amundsen:
Take a look at any Amundsen biography and you’ll see what I mean: here’s a man that I’m pretty sure could’ve run any ultramarathon. But at the same time would also have got his visa in advance and put in place a thousand and one fallback options for when even the most extreme deviation from the plan occurred.