Apparently the Duke of Wellington had an unusual approach to developing his battlefield strategies: he played with toy soldiers. In a large room, he’d build model landscapes over which he would set warring miniature armies against each other. But, unusually, he would act as the general of both armies – conflicting roles he immersed himself in by, literally, wearing different hats. As the drama unfolded, the Iron Duke would be seen running round the battlefield edge barking orders and swapping headgear as lackeys moved the tiny troops into position.
This may sound eccentric, but Wellington was honing a vital skill for 19th century warfare. In the days before aerial reconnaissance and real-time updates from the front line, the ability to ‘read’ a battle from a distant vantage point and to assess how your opponent would be interpreting your tactics from their perspective was critical.
At the start of a new year, this approach might be worth adopting in our organisations.
We all know about the ‘new broom’ effect. A bright, shiny new manager arrives in a department and the first thing that happens is a root-and-branch review. What does the business need us to deliver? Where are we doing well? Where can we improve? Are we doing stuff that’s no longer creating value? And so on.
Whenever this happens, there are always things that need changing. Furthermore, once the dust has settled, the team usually acknowledges that the changes were for the better; that they’re now focused on what’s really important; that they’ve created extra capacity to get on with the important stuff by getting rid of the clutter that had built up; and that, buried under the clutter, were some talented people just looking for the opportunity to rise up and shine.
All of this makes the new manager look good, and the organisation congratulates itself on having made a smart appointment. The irony of this, of course, is that the manager who’d allowed the department to get stale in the first place is probably performing the same new broom magic in their new role.
Departments don’t lose productivity because their managers lack talent. They go off the boil because their managers don’t create the opportunity to look at what they are doing from a different perspective. Maybe we could model ourselves on Wellington and switch some headgear to add a bit of ‘zing’ to our organisations at the start of 2011.
Identify one of your peer group whom you trust and whose opinion you respect. If you’re the HR director it might be the marketing director – and suggest that you mentally swap hats for a while. You invite your peer to look at your team through the eyes of a new manager coming into the department and get them to identify the areas where they would look to for improvement. In return, you do the same for their team. Although this process is not without its challenges, the benefits of a fresh perspective can be enormous.
The year ahead looks set, again, to be highly challenging but, if we can ensure that our teams are in good shape, it needn’t be our Waterloo.