Tag Archive | business

Foxy Thinking or Why Five-Year Plans Don’t Work

More than a decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Clem Sunter speak about scenario planning, and the book he co-wrote with Chantell Ilbury, called The Mind of a Fox: Scenario Planning in Action.

The occasion was a memorable day in itself – speech day and prize giving at Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, with guest speaker Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, Mandela’s plane to Pietermaritzburg was delayed by bad weather and diverted to Durban, which meant that his entourage had an extra hour of road travel between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

In itself a fortuitous example of scenario planning, the school had arranged a back-up speaker in case of delays. The tall grey-haired man in the front row was introduced as Clem Sunter and he occupied our minds for the next 45 minutes.

Foxes, he explained, have many dens and are adaptable in their habits, which is why they are called wily, and they know how to survive no matter what Fate throws at them.

Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are not very streetwise. They live in the same nest all their lives, hibernate in winter, and hide from danger by rolling into a ball to expose their spikes in the hope that the danger will leave them alone. They talk big and make five year plans that go awry when a fox moves into their territory and disrupts their comfortable lives, making them afraid to leave their comfy holes.

Foxes often eat hedgehogs despite the spikes. The wily fox will find a way around the spikes.

The fox thinks on his feet, is intuitive and uses his imagination to show him the way. In life, we cannot predict the future. All we can do is try to be as informed as possible so that we can make the right decisions when problems arise along the way. Life is a series of small steps taken one at a time – often with little knowledge of what lies ahead – so it is a waste of time trying to plan every step in advance.

We know the route we will drive to work each day, but we cannot wait for all the traffic lights to be green before we leave home. If there are delays or road-works we will deal with each as we reach them. If we know our territory we can choose another road and get to the same place without too much trauma.

It is this choosing of an alternate option that uses our fox-brains and allows us to plan alternate scenarios.

Sunter explained to the school the relative simplicity of scenario planning, as if approaching a crossroads. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are your options? Which one do you choose? The better informed we are, the better decisions we can make.

Out in the wild, a fox does the same things. If he’s hungry and goes in search of food, he may find a hedgehog.

What are the rules? The hedgehog will roll into a ball and expose his spikes.

What are the uncertainties? The fox may go hungry, or he may trick the hedgehog into exposing his softer flesh. Or he may get a mouth full of spikes.

What are his options? Try the hedgehog or move on in another direction and find a bird or rabbit instead. Crossroads after crossroads, the fox will make the relevant decisions based on each situation and keep moving.

I’ve always loved hedgehogs and thought they were cute. I still do. I have a healthy respect for foxes, though, and have looked at their habits with fresh eyes since that Speech Day at Hilton College.

How does this relate to me personally? Should all delicate hedgehogs start observing foxes and learning from their habits? Perhaps we have already started.

In my first year of working I mapped out my first five year plan. Six months later it blew up when I took unpaid leave to travel around Europe with the love of my life. My priorities changed, so did my goalposts. When I returned from Europe I discovered that I hated my job. It wasn’t turning into what I had planned for my life. I was frustrated by the narrow thinking and the small minds that burrowed in the dark, finding fault with everyone else. Things they did were old-fashioned and petty, but that’s how they had done it for years. Everything they stood for seemed outdated or directionless.

I left that job and attempted training in a completely different field: pharmaceuticals. That lasted three days before I admitted I was wasting both my time and theirs. They appreciated my honesty and wished me well as I left. Faced with uncertainties, I weighed up my options. Within days I had begged a friend for a ticket to a theatre opening night, knowing that two production managers for two separate theatre companies would be there, and my plan was to quiz them both about prospective jobs. One was there, the other wasn’t, so I got talking to the one who was. He invited me to a meeting in his office a few days later, and I was hired.

My plan was to stick around for six months and see how it panned out. If I didn’t like it, I would find something else and move on. Already I was thinking like a fox and yet I would not hear of Clem Sunter for another twenty years. As it turned out, I really enjoyed that job. I found the less predictable atmosphere to be more creative, and I had much more fun there than in the first theatre.

I was never particularly good with numbers, could never balance my cheque book in my early years of working, and had found the management structure of my first job bewildering to say the least. My second job had one man at the top who made all the decisions, and a handful of us down below who carried them out, and things worked out reasonably well because we were all versatile and adapted easily to the constant changes.

Thinking back now, that second boss was a fox too, because he didn’t dwell on things that didn’t work. A forward-thinking entrepreneur who seized the moment, cut his losses, and was an excellent judge of his place in the market. I worked for him for three years, and only left because my father died and I returned home to stay with my mother for a few months.

For years afterwards, as I worked in other theatres around South Africa, something in me always wanted to do an MBA. During the 80s and 90s it became the “thing to do,” the thing you could swank about having done because it showed you were of above average intelligence. But for me, it was because I wanted to be able to analyse how and why businesses worked as they did. I wanted to find my own niche and make money doing a different kind of business. Something creative, in the craft line, but I wanted to go into it with my eyes open.

Eventually, after nearly 20 years in the workplace, I enrolled in the first level of an MBA programme. I found it fascinating. Various management models, types of structures, and so on – all very interesting. I finally saw clearly for the first time why my cheque book had never balanced! If only I had known it would be so simple…

In my second year of study, when we got to Business Research Methods, I began to see why theatre is such an unpredictable industry. You cannot take a sample and infer it on the whole. Yes, you can have all your ducks in a row, the best groundwork covered and all the research done to the nth degree, but it still won’t explain why audiences rush to see that particular show or stay away in droves from another that has all the same winning ingredients. I realised that theatre was different. Arts in general are different. Writing books is different too.

I am different and five year plans don’t work for me. If they did, I wouldn’t be sitting in Australia right now, loving the unpredictability of my life, and looking forward to the endless possibilities available. I’d be quaking in my boots somewhere, wondering what happened, why it all went wrong, and probably waiting for someone to rescue me.

Instead I am optimistic about my future and ready for anything. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are my options? What will I choose? Even I don’t know yet, but I will work it out as I advance, and advance I will. The words of Australia’s national anthem Advance Australia Fair are ringing in my ears, ripe with opportunity.

Within a week of hearing Clem Sunter speak, I found and bought his book because his speech had left such a deep impression on me. In fact, that book is one of only two business books I brought to Australia with me. The other is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which was a gift from my best friend’s mother, before I began my MBA studies.

Why these two books, over all the others that I let go? Simple. They haven’t dated. They remain relevant. They are the best operational and strategic guidelines for life, and they make no false claims about hedgehogs following fantasy five year plans!

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