Up, Forward and Out

Look up

Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent physicist and cosmologist of his generation, encouraged us to “remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet” and running through Richmond Park this morning, it was easy to see the wisdom in his advice. With mist thick on the ground and the pre-dawn light splashing blues, pinks and oranges across the sky, there were a thousand scenes more arresting than anything that could be captured on the page of a book or by a camera.

What was striking was that, in a city of 9 million people, there was nobody else there to see these extraordinary sights, save for the intermittent stream of cyclists, their progress marked by the pin pricks of their lights through the mist and with their heads bent down, furiously pedalling their way to work.

In today’s world, with all its demands on our time and the many worries available to us (not to mention our ever-present phones with their continuous calling for our attention), it’s easy to go through life with one’s head down, taking care of the next task, priority (or message). And yet, this is not where personal growth, inspiration or creativity lies. It is the moments between tasks and the busy-ness where the sources of energy and motivation exist and yet, with our heads down, it’s all too easy to unknowingly allow these powerful forces to pass us by. What remains is a helpless feeling of a relentless hamster wheel of tasks and responsibilities. No wonder here is a growing sense of crisis in mental health in the western world.

It’s not necessary to look all the way to the stars, but to look up from time to time and notice what is around us is vital if life and work are to retain meaning and for us to see ourselves in a broader context and with the gift of perspective.

Focus Forwards, as well as Backwards

When it comes to organisations, most thinking and activity is based on existing knowledge and ways of working as well as historical analysis, nicely captured by the aphorism that generals tend to fight the last war, as opposed to the next one. Similarly, organisations work from old assumptions which anchor them in the past and make them vulnerable to obsolescence and disruption. This especially true in larger organisations whose structures and bureaucracy tend towards conformity and act to maintain the status quo.

We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us’ – Winston Churchill

Financial measurements of success are also generally backwards-facing (last year’s results, sales, profit, customers, patients, etc). When you rely on historical measures of success it’s not surprising that organisations are constantly caught out by unexpected shocks (for a well-known example, see the 2008/9 financial crisis but it can also be seen in a variety of less obvious examples, such as schools that boast about their profit and enrolment numbers, missing the future problems that are already lurking out of sight to the bean counters).

The challenge for most organisations is that forward-based factors lie in more difficult to quantify areas around organisational dynamics such as client relationships, reputation, belief, energy, alignment, loyalty, attractiveness as an employer, etc. These factors are more difficult to count and, where they are quantified, they are generally discounted, being seen as less important than more familiar and tangible measures.

Whilst rearwards-looking metrics have a role in documenting results, organisations should place equal importance on the forward-looking measures of an organisation’s health and its relationship with its clients, staff, suppliers and broader ecosystem. Leaders need to have familiarity with and confidence in the ‘softer’ measurements that hold so much information about the future prospects for the organisation.

Orientate Outwards

Fuelling the tendency towards status quo is the concurrent likelihood that organisations become increasingly inwards-focused as they grow. This is, at least in part, understandable as the processes, systems and structures required to administer a large organisation become increasingly complex, requiring management themselves. However, if left unchecked this can create an imbalance where the number of people managing the internal systems outnumber and out-weigh those with direct customer-focused roles resulting in the systems taking priority and precedence over customer needs. The tail wags the dog.

This inwards focus can lead to neglecting the market more generally, losing track of changing customer trends and competitors, resulting in declining innovation and responsiveness, condemning an organisation to irrelevance and obsolescence.

Up, Forward and Out

These three tendencies – to look down, backwards and inwards – inherent in us as individuals and in organisations, appear a sensible response to immediate challenges but are misleading and unhelpful. Effective organisations (and people) learn to focus ‘Up, Forward and Out’, knowing that in order to be successful (in Stephen Covey’s words) one should “start with the end in mind”.

The added advantage of such an orientation and state of mind is to access optimism, creativity and possibilities as the past is already decided, the future is not.

A greater ability to think and act ‘Up, Forward and Out’ is especially important today, as a counter-balance to the nervousness, pessimism and closed-mindedness resulting from growing uncertainty and the building of walls (both physical and metaphorical).

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