Thursday, November 20, 2014

Half a step

One of the most important pieces of advice that I ever received was from a former boss, who was not just an extra-ordinary problem solver but also a master at business strategy.

His advice was very simple: “The difference between being half a step ahead and half a step behind is only a step, but it is the most important step.”

Coming from most people it would have seemed like yet another business cliché, but having observed his overall success first hand, this advice stuck with me from that moment onwards and has since been a big part of how I think and work.

The advice is simple and intuitive, but practising it takes, well.., some practice.

The underlying assumption of this advice is that most people do the bare minimum for known events and usually just react to new situations that may crop up. It’s never a good thing to make sweeping generalizations such as this one — but in this case, I have found that the assumption generally holds good although its magnitude may differ based on the culture of an organization or society.

There are two key parts in making the advice work. Accountability and Anticipation. Both work in tandem and are necessary conditions.

Accountability is committing yourself to something and then having the discipline of doing it to the standards that you committed yourself to. This means a no-excuse ownership of delivery and quality.
Anticipation is a little more difficult to practice because it needs reference points and judgment. But in simple terms, all it means is to take a step back and look at your delivery objectively to answer a simple question — what could screw this up? We are not looking for black swans, just a simple testing of our core beliefs in producing that output. Just being aware of the risk gives enough ideas to keep you half a step ahead.

With the above two components of the plan, the simple advice has enough power to make a meaningful difference. It works for something as simple as leading a work project or as complex as changing some personal life situation. At the very least, it helps you in being prepared — and that in itself is a great outcome.

It is no coincidence that the most effective people I have met seem to have already ingrained this approach, and are quite possibly more than half a step ahead. Go ahead and give it a try — start with something as simple as your next big meeting coming up at work.

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