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This is an entirely fictional story but one that maybe is relatable as you have had occasion to sit around an executive table. The important points to extract are to be found under ‘Reflection Points’ that follow the story. This represents a very different approach to teeing-up some important considerations in the context in which we find ourselves – a shape-shifting time due to a global pandemic. Where our story ends might be to place where you would like to pick-up the conversation with TomorrowToday as we think that that last final line merits serious consideration as you prepare to ensure that your company / team is futurefit…ready and adaptable for whatever comes next. Enjoy the read…

Tuesday. 2:45pm… Triton Head Office Board Room…

It had been a long day and Tony found his mind wandering, not for the first time that executive meeting. He gazed across the expansive mahogany board room table at Frank who was earnestly talking about the reworked budget and some of the dire financial realities that Triton Industries now faced. There was a detectable edge to Frank’s usual dulcet tones, understandable really thought Tony…

This damn pandemic, who would ever have thought that all our work would come to this?

Frank, the long-serving Financial Director had always been a realist. Never one for readily embracing the new or those big, bold game-changing ideas that had always energized Tony. He was someone who always seemed grounded if not a little boring, but he certainly knew their business inside-out and was considered by everyone as a ‘safe pair of hands’. I guess that is what makes him good at what he does Tony thought to himself as Frank ended with, “Any questions?”

A heavy silence descended on the room as the reality of what Frank had shared sunk in.

An earnings forecast that was down 45% on the previous year; a pipeline that had all but disappeared; a nett profit that gave the company little to no room to manoeuvre and the next interest payment on the bold loan taken to acquire their primary opposition due. Tony remembered the excited and bullish conversation they had engaged in when debating the merits of taking out the loan…and how Frank had needed a lot of convincing! It was certainly an audacious move, but one that had made sense at the time, especially given Triton’s year-on-year growth. They had a secure supply chain that ensured internationally competitive pricing and a bulging pipeline order book. It had all added up.

But that seemed a lifetime ago Tony thought ruefully. The reality was it was barely 18 months since this optimism had fuelled the executives’ animated discussions. At the time the future had seemed so certain…so bright, so clear. How quickly things had unravelled.

Tony dragged his thoughts back to the present and refocused on what was being said.

Graeme, the youngest member of the team and the energetic but likeable sales director, was suggesting that HR costs could be slashed and that the training budget be reassigned to his sales team. Across from Tony, Jude, the HR Director sighed audibly and slumped a little further into her chair. We had been here before: Graeme’s position was well known. He saw little need for training and development within the business, regarding it as a waste of both time and resources, resources that could be better used elsewhere…which usually meant ‘in sales’. Jude, who before joining Triton had overseen the Training Academy at a large multi-national and had a lifetime invested in training and development. She was passionate about it and, as an industrial psychologist with an intimidating array of letters behind her name, was someone who could – and frequently did, make a compelling case for the need to do training within Triton. She had been brought in by the CEO Victoria MacDonald, for this very reason.

Victoria and Jude had studied together at Cambridge and had been friends long before they became colleagues. This entwined past provided an interesting dynamic to the executive with some, including Tony, feeling that Victoria sometime cut Jude unwarranted slack. Still, Jude had done a good job in creating an awareness and practice for training within Triton and thought Tony, had delivered against the odds. It wasn’t so much the functional training that had been questioned – the need for that was obvious; but rather 

as Graeme put it, “all the soft touchy-feelie stuff”. That was the bit that always seemed to be on the merry-go-round of the executive’s agenda especially as Jude advocated strongly that the executive themselves needed to be involved in the numerous courses on offer. It was the “EQ training” as Jude referred to it, that always hooked Graeme who couldn’t resist the opportunity for a sarcastic or snide comment whenever Jude was talking about the importance of EQ and self-awareness. The resulting ‘edge’ had just become part of how the executive worked, each taking a side and, in some cases, no side at all. It is just how things were and Victoria seemed content to let it be although often shooting a sympathetic glance towards Jude whenever Tony made one of his comments.

If nothing else, it provided most around the table an opportunity to laugh and Tony didn’t think anyone else noticed Jude’s ire and Victoria’s subtle support. If they did, they certainly didn’t let on.

A global pandemic and a gloomy financial picture seemed a good time to once again challenge the budget for training. Tony wondered whether or not Jude would have the energy for such a fight. Others around the table sensed familiar battlelines being drawn and were retreating into well-formed positions when there was a gentle knocking on the door.

Two trollies brim-full of considerably unhealthy savouries were wheeled into the room. The scones with impossibly generous helpings of strawberry jam and cream immediately caught Tony’s eye. No further invitation was needed and all at once his resolve to lose some of his expanding waistline crumbled; succumbing yet again to the daily onslaught from the excellent caterers that Triton had outsourced to a few months earlier.

As Tony was justifying his second scone, he wondered why no one had suggested that the catering budget be trimmed…it couldn’t have been cheap and the decision to outsource had been taken when they seemed to have budget to burn. But he wasn’t going to be the one to raise the issue. After all, some battles are best avoided he reasoned as he replaced his empty plate on the trolley and poured himself some coffee.

When Victoria called everyone back to the table it seemed as though a solemn seriousness had settled over the group. There was a distinct lack of the usual banter and laughter that normally would have burst into life during the coffee recess like some helpless victim unexpectantly freed from the suffocating stranglehold of formal proceedings. Even Graeme seemed somewhat subdued. 

The financial reality had clearly sunk in. Tony had noticed some animated discussion during the break between Frank and a couple of the executive but exactly what it was about he didn’t know… and didn’t really care. He immediately had felt a twinge of guilt… he knew he should care more but his tiredness had washed over him yet again and that second scone had provided welcome cover to any further exploration of why he couldn’t be bothered.

As he took his seat, he felt drained.

“Right” Victoria said, clearing her throat before adding, “so, putting aside the reallocation of the training budget for now, what are we going to do? What else can we do?”

There was a stagnant pause before Buhle, the South African engineer who had joined Triton around the same time as Tony said, “Shouldn’t we simply stick to the plan? We spent a lot of time coming up with our strategic plan with the help of…who were those guys again…?”

“ISOC Consulting” said Jude. “Yes, that’s right…thanks” Buhle said, giving Jude a brief smile. “We have a plan and I think we need to stick with that plan. The bottom line might have changed but Frank has already addressed some of that”

“But that plan was shaped in a completely different context…we were in a different place, shit… the world was in a different place, how can we think it remains relevant given what we are currently experiencing?” asked Dean, the only member of the team who had previously run a Triton franchise before joining Corporate. It was something that gave him a perspective and insight that most, including Victoria, didn’t have.

Dean had already played several different roles within the business in a relatively short period of time. He currently headed-up a project that was looking at better ways to deal with the regulators who had imposed a range of new measures on not just Triton, but the entire industry and sector. Tony sometimes thought Dean took a contrary view simply because he could, although there was no doubting the sharp mind that hid behind the thick black rimmed glasses and prematurely balding head that Dean seemed overly conscious of.

“But isn’t that the point of having a plan” said Nick in a way that no one was quite sure whether or not it was meant to be a question or statement. No one paid much attention, something not uncommon whenever Nick spoke. Not for the first time Tony wondered how this might make Nick feel. He was glad it didn’t happen to him and he made a mental note to maybe chat to Nick about it when the time was right. It would be something he would casually mention over a beer when he could get Nick alone and by so doing maybe be able to offer him some encouragement. Heavens knows he could do with some…Nick’s underperforming division had been the only drag on Triton before Covid had hit reducing the division to a mere sideshow. Still, Nick’s confidence had taken a battering…and it showed.

“Yes, we did invest a lot in that process with ISOC…” said Victoria who was abruptly interrupted by Graeme who asked, “I can’t remember, what the hell did ‘ISOC’ stand for again…In something or other…”

“In Search of Creative Solutions” said Dean. “Ah, that’s it…not so creative now was it” Graeme smirked.


Tony knew where this was all heading.

The elaborate but unwieldy plan would be put back on the table, the usual jargon would be spewed out and they would be back embracing the common nonsense at the cost of uncommon sense. There would be the usual collective inability to think out the box; the predictable territorialism; the belief that if they all just worked a bit harder and trimmed their costs that this, like the 2009 crisis before, would right things and they could simply carry on as they always had. All this would be punctuated by the usual insights and supporting facts, the ebb and flow of the same conversations accompanied by the all-too familiar satisfaction of ‘getting the work done’ – of doing the ‘executive work’ on behalf of Triton. A sense of doing what they were all there to do…make the tough decisions.

It was all so predictable.

What nobody seemed willing to admit was that this was unlike any situation they had ever faced in the past. This was unique and would require them to completely reimagine their business and business model. Why was it that nobody had said this? Could they not see it? Was it too risky to mention? As the questions stumbled around Tony’s thinking so his frustration grew…why was it that nobody could see what was so plainly obvious to him?

Then the Eisenhower quote came to mind…and before he could stop it, escaped into the open.

“Plans are bloody foolish but maybe planning is still important” Tony blurted out a little too loudly and unsure of where exactly the conversation around the table was at that point. He had lost track of what was being said having been captive to his own internal thoughts for last several minutes.

Conversation drained out the room like unwanted dishwater disappearing down the sinkhole. Every eye in the room was now trained squarely on him. There was lengthy pause which did nothing to reassure Tony before Graeme, as one would expect…broke ranks.

“Well Mohammed Ali once said, everybody I fight has a plan until I punch them on the nose”

“It was Mike Tyson” corrected Dean…”and it was in the mouth…punch them in the mouth”

“Right…the point is” said Tony, having regrouped and deftly side-stepping Dean’s correction, “Shouldn’t we be questioning the wisdom of having or following a plan at a time like this? Surely in a time of such turmoil and uncertainty we need to rethink some of our approach. I think that rigid plans are something that belong in a different era and that if we want to be nimble and more adaptive – god knows we’re always talking about it, we might need to be willing to rethink pretty much everything…” Tony trailed off as he couldn’t be sure of the impact of his words.

 He felt he had already said too much and immediately wished he had just shut-up. Not for the first time that day there was yet another awkward silence.

“Go on” said Victoria eventually with a look that Tony couldn’t quite work out.

Did she agree with him or was she just setting him up for some almighty fall? But Victoria wasn’t the type to give him rope to simply hang himself and so he took it as a cue to continue. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ he thought to himself allowing himself a slight smile as that had been a favourite saying of his Dad who had passed away two months earlier, an early victim of this damn Covid. The pain of his passing was still a gapping open wound, one that Tony wasn’t sure would ever heal as he had been exceptionally close to his Dad. He pushed those thoughts and emotions quickly aside…

“OK” he said, trying to convey a greater confidence than he felt.

“What if we have it all wrong? What if we need to be willing to radically change the way we think about leadership – our role; about Triton…about what and how we deliver to value to our stakeholders? What if we see this Covid thing as an opportunity to reimagine our business? I think we all know that we are increasingly out of step with some of the obvious trends…digital transformation for one and I know that we all feel a little uncomfortable about what our younger staff have been telling us. We seem well positioned in the market but, it is a market that is mature…one that is saturated. The real opportunities lie beyond our comfort zone and although we have talked about it often…we’ve made little real progress in understanding what it will take – and learning how best to create a meaningful foothold in those markets…markets we know will be the future…our future”

“The world has certainly changed” interrupted Jude with a heavy emphasis on ‘has’.

“The world has certainly changed” interrupted Jude with a heavy emphasis on ‘has’. Tony was immediately relieved that he didn’t have to go any further – or have to reorder his words that had tumbled out in defiance of any intent.

“There is a book I read recently that was titled, Leading in a Changing World… well I think that the world has changed!” Jude went on. “Maybe Tony is right…maybe we need to think differently. We have to pay close attention to our context and that context is one that is complex…well more complex than ever before. Complexity changes things and we need to recognise what has changed and what this might require of us. This doesn’t mean that what we have done in the past is wrong…it just means that it won’t be sufficient to ensure our future success. Recognising this is our first step to meaningfully embracing what it is we need to do and become.”

Jude stopped talking. She seemed about to say something else but checked herself and looked purposefully around the table.

Nothing was said for quite some time. Tony had opened a gate and Jude had ensured it remained open. Wide open. Their words hung in the air and Victoria sensed that this was a key moment, it was one she didn’t intend to waste.

“Let’s have a short break and as we do let’s think about what’s just been said…let’s think about what all this means for us. When we come back in five minutes, I want to hear from everyone…I want to hear everyone’s considered response to what Tony and Jude have just said. Victoria paused momentarily before turning to Tony and adding, “Tony is there anything you want to add before we have that break?”

The gaze of everybody in the room settled back on Tony and without knowing why, at that moment Tony felt a certainty of thought that had eluded him up until this point. He took a deep breath before saying something that he had been wanting to say and talk about with his colleagues for a long time…

In a steady but authoritative voice, Tony said, “If we are to survive and ultimately thrive in the face of the uncertain future, we need to make our structure our strategy.”

Reflection Points

Scroll Right for 9 more reflection points

Triton (the name of the company in our story) was named after the Greek god of the sea. Triton lived with his parents (there’s a familiar theme!) in a golden palace at the bottom of the sea. Proteus, another Greek god of the sea was imbued with knowledge and could, when in the grip of an adversary, change his shape or form. This dexterity – the ‘shape-shifting’ form, made Proteus a formidable opponent.

When it comes to the ability to ‘change shape’ is your company more like Triton or Proteus?

What kind of flexibility do you have within your structure?

How can greater flexibility be built into your structural DNA?

Reflection 2

The idea that you make your ‘structure your strategy ‘in order to cope with constant but unknown disruption is something worthy of serious consideration. The global pandemic has exposed many structures to be unwieldy, ill-suited and unable to cope with some of the work demands to have emerged over the past several months.

Trying to anticipate the ‘next disruption’ and then prepare for it could be a red herring to the work you really need to be doing…or what in the language of ‘adaptive leadership’ is termed ‘work avoidance.’ In other words, ‘doing important work but not the work that is required at this moment’.

How can you build a structure that, regardless of the disruption being faced, can morph into whatever is needed? Good places to start thinking about this would be to consider two specific aspects of your organisation:

  1. Decision rights – how are decisions made and who gets to make them
  2. Information flow – who has it and how is information disseminated throughout the organisation?

Understanding these aspects can then lead to reviewing how to bring the decision rights (authority) closer to where the information resides. Do this (and of course provided that some other important DNA characteristics are present) and you’ll begin to move towards being a truly empowered organisation – one where ‘shape-shifting’ can become a reality.

Reflection 3

Does your strategic plan hinder or help your ability to innovate and be adaptive?

When last did you test the assumption that you need to have a plan and / or review your planning processes?

Real innovation is not product or service innovation but the ability to innovate your business model – how are you intentionally building the leadership capability that makes this difficult work possible?

Reflection 4

Building on the previous point: Rather than be overly concerned with what the disruption will be, maybe you would be better served to ensure that, regardless of the disruption, your company can change-shape in response.

The list of possible disruptions is depressingly endless and could include further pandemics, natural disasters, solar storms (that destroy all electronic communications), global conflict that rapidly expand from any number of ‘hot-spots’, another financial meltdown in global markets, technology that revolutionises your sector / industry, reaching critical points of no-return in climate change, regulatory intervention, consumer habits undergoing a radical shift, demographic shifts that become game-changers and so one could go on!

Brazilian businessman and author Ricardo Semler suggests that every company should be, “paying someone to look out the window”. As TomorrowToday we often help companies do this work, but it is better to have as many of your own people as is possible doing this important work; doing it as part of their every-day responsibility.

Who is ‘looking out the window’ in your company? What are they seeing and saying?

Reflection 5

How well situated is your Exco team to be having the kind of conversations that ensures you are ready to respond to change and disruption? In our story, Victoria challenged her team by asking, “what are we going to do? What else can we do?”

What might be the questions you (as a team / business) should be asking but aren’t?

Do you entertain what futurist Jim Dator calls, ‘ridiculous ideas’? Dator’s Second Law of Futures states that ‘any useful idea about the future must appear ridiculous’ before adding an important caveat that, ‘not every ridiculous idea is useful’. So, how proficient is your team with (seriously) entertaining ‘ridiculous ideas’ and how have you built filters to quickly and efficiently filter out the ‘non-useful ideas’?

Would Tony’s suggestion of ‘make structure our strategy’ be seen as a ‘ridiculous idea’ by your team?

What are some ridiculous ideas you might need to consider?

Tip: Starting conversations with, “what if?”…might help, as would reading Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles’ excellent book, Uncommon Sense Common Nonsense.

Reflection 6

What voices do your team ‘bring to the table’? Are there roles or positions adopted that get in the way of effective engagement? What can you do to create productive disequilibrium that helps develop the capacity of your team to be more adaptive?

What voice do you bring to the table? This might translate into an interesting discussion as an agenda item if you are not certain. Starting with ‘your voice’ will create the space for others to consider their voice as you progress and deepen the discussion.

How well do you know your team and what they might be going through in their personal lives (like Tony being impacted by the death of his father)? How might this be impacting their presence and performance at work?

Reflection 7

If a typical executive meeting at your company were to be written as a story, what would that story look like?

What would be to spoken and unspoken threads that run through the storyline? Who always ‘rescues’ the situation?

Who plays the part of the Joker?

What are the alliances inherent within your team? How does all this serve / hinder the desired team dynamic?

Reflection 8

Victoria called for a break to give the team time to reflect and gather their thoughts. How do you use pauses within your team meetings to help create the space and time for reflection?

Meg Wheatly said that, “Thinking is the place where all intelligent action starts”.

What would happen if you initiated intentional times of reflection as part of your meetings?

Reflection 9

Within your team: Who is reading and what are they reading? How are new ideas and perspectives getting to the table? This points to the ‘learning capacity’ of your team.

To be adaptively intelligent an individual or collective has to ‘invite learning’…or to put it plainly, ‘be a learner’. How well does your team do in this vital area?

What are you learning? How is that learning showing itself?

What do your team need to learn, unlearn and relearn? Alvin Toffler said that, ‘the illiterate of the 21 Century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. Learning is an ongoing continuous process.

Eric Hoffer said that, “in times of change it is the learners who inherit the earth. The learned find themselves beautifully equipped to live a world that no longer exists”. To what extent are you / your team / your business ‘beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists’?

Make structure your strategy

Let’s have a conversation if you’re ready to make structure your strategy.