Keep on keeping on

Frederick the Great, a brilliant military strategist, was nevertheless blamed for the defeat of the Prussian army at the battle of Jena in 1806. This was somewhat harsh as he had died twenty years previously. The point was that the Prussian army continued operating as it had under Frederick because those strategies had been very successful at the time. However, the Prussian army had not changed, moved on, adapted…. and then along came Napoleon and swept it away.

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“The moment I won my second world championship in 1986, I knew who would beat me in the end,” said Garry Kasparov. “Who?” he was asked, “Time,” he replied. This was 2012 and the chess champion was talking to Pep Guardiola, then living in New York on a sabbatical from football. Guardiola’s first job as a first team coach was with FC Barcelona and he had won 14 trophies out of a possible 19, an unequalled record. However, he felt he needed new ideas. In NY, he would sit in on economics classes at Columbia University and hang out with Woody Allen and Kasparov. 

Now Guardiola has won nine league titles across three countries in only 12 seasons. His friend, novelist David Trueba, says that Guardiola is interested in everything from economics to Catalan poetry to basketball tactics, but that he then “footballises” the learning – he applies it to his own line of business. Sometimes his experiments fail, but as he says: “If you are not experimenting, you are not evolving”.

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Failure to change, to adapt, has led to many business failures over the years. Looking outside your own specialism can provide inspiration and help you adapt: military designers borrowed ideas from Picasso to camouflage tanks; the revolutionary, lightweight McLaren folding baby buggy was based on the retractable undercarriage of a Spitfire fighter aircraft; and there is a whole industry of bio-mimetics copying features from the natural world (e.g. the visual systems of starfish are copied to improve lens design). Not all of these experiments will work, but that is part of the evolutionary process.

As one of today’s tech titans, Mark Zuckerberg, has said: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking any risk.”

Data Sources: The Whack Pack – Roger von Oech, The Financial Times

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