"Gaming is one of the easiest ways for a business to approach uncertainty." – Business Leader

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Issue 37

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Hosted by
Serena Haththotuwa
August 10, 2022

Chris Paton has had roles in the French Ministry of Defence, UK Ministry of Defence, and the Royal Marines before founding a consultancy, Quirk Solutions, that supports businesses to become more effective and improve their culture and performance. We spoke to Chris about how the pandemic allowed businesses to rethink bureaucratic processes, the power of gaming in preparation for catastrophe and why vulnerability in a leader is the key to success.
It was mostly accidental. I was working with the Royal Marines and hadn’t really anticipated leaving if I’m honest. My friend asked my opinion on a Harvard Business Review article and in a bit of a rant I wrote a response he really liked it and sent it to HRB and it was published. This raised a degree of interest in some of the things I thought and believed in.
Simultaneously, I had been let down badly whilst I was serving and then one of my good friends contacted me and told me about a start-up, they had invested in but they didn’t have a strategy for it. They offered me equal equity if I produced the business strategy for it and then act as the operations lead for running the business. But then 3 days before I was about to leave the Royal Marines, one of the individuals ran off with everyone’s money but more importantly all of my time.
I had slaved away for two years to produce this business plan and then suddenly I had no money to pay my mortgage. So instead, I approached businesses that had contacted me off the back of the HBR article and asked them if they would be interested in me carrying out consultancy – fortunately they said yes. I then worked like hell to get to where I am now, so in a way it was a good thing that failure happened because consultancy suits me.
I don’t think that former military people have anything to offer above and beyond other people who have never had a military background. For me, the one thing that is common across all military people and business leadership is genuine care and affection for the people around you that you work with. There is this misconception that military people are obnoxious and walk around all day barking at people. But you can only do the things that I used to have to do through a solidarity amongst a team and that is based on emotion and building trust.
It’s traits like empathy, being able to look at people’s body language, listen to the things that aren’t necessarily being said – these are the traits that former military people have.
Empathy is key for me. Having a genuine connection with all of the team and trying to help team members perform at their very best is important. My view is to bring very great people into the organisation and then get out of their way. If someone is struggling with something emotionally, procedurally, or with a process — whatever it is, a great leader should wonder how they can resolve it for that person.
Patience and tolerance are also very important in any leadership role. People are always going to get things wrong but rarely do people deliberately try and sabotage something. They’ve genuinely made what they felt was the best decision at the time with the information they had available to them. Anyone that makes a mistake feels it deeply, especially if it was their own mistake. What a leader needs to do is help pick them back up and learn from the mistake, because they’re already beating themselves up.
It’s not easy to do this because we’ve all been brought up with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy came about in the mid-1890s and at this time it made sense for it to be around because it was basically chaos in most organisations, and it’s been in place for such a long time that it’s very difficult to get away from.
Coaching the senior leadership can be really beneficial. But you can’t run leadership and development courses and then expect them to lead in a different way to an organisation – you’ve got to bring the whole organisation on that journey. You’ve got to educate people at the very junior level on what’s going to happen and how the company is going about things in a different way.
I’d like to think so but I’m not entirely sure. A lot of organisations have found themselves operating in a different way because they had to, not necessarily because they put a lot of thought behind it. Because there are organisations that are desperate to get back to the way they used to work, and a lot of their workforce are desperate to get back to the way they used to work.
It has created some interesting developments around a four-day working week as we have seen some organisations shift to this. It was also interesting to see the amount of trust that started to build up because organisations weren’t able to be on top of everybody all the time. I don’t think organisations have realised enough that they have this massive opportunity to build trust which makes them feel more connected and make relationships in the business stronger.
Because to make decisions you should talk to a broad coalition from across the organisation. This means you’re going to take forward a whole bunch of people – a complete vertical slice rather than leading from the top-down.
Absolutely, that vulnerability and authenticity are key to success. As leaders, you don’t know everything about everything and there’s this façade that fortunately is starting to drop. If you turned to me ten years ago and told me I had to get 11,000 people out of Afghanistan, it would be utterly insane for me to turn around and say: “Yes of course, I know exactly how to do that.”
So being authentic and asking the rest of your team how to do something is really important. That authenticity and vulnerability doesn’t just create better ideas but it creates better outcomes, because people see that you’re willing to share something of yourself and share the fact that you need their support, and that creates a stronger bond.
I think it’s important to understand that you might need to dial up and dial down your leadership according to the situation. If there is something unexpected like a pandemic, or a massive disrupter comes into the market, at this point leaders should start to take a grip and manage more directly. It would be unfair to ask team members what to do. So, I don’t think leaders should be afraid to micromanage but just be quite on the detail of when to do this.
I think uncertainty and volatility are two of the most difficult things for organisations to deal with. People feel uncomfortable when they don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and this can impact how much people enjoy being at work too. Gaming is one of the easiest ways for a business to approach uncertainty.
This technique essentially creates a safe space for people to contribute and try to work out what might happen in the future. The best way to start is to imagine a scenario with different potential outcomes. For example, if you were going to lose a client because they’ve shutdown due to the recession, you should be asking yourselves: “What would we do if this happened?” and “What could we do to pre-empt this?” These discussions can draw out ideas of how you can approach challenges.
There’s a misconception that gaming takes a lot of time and effort. It doesn’t have to. We recently did some work for a very large German automotive manufacturer and took them through the launch of a large vehicle. We ran through a game for only two hours and yet they ended up with around 34 actions that they needed to take to improve their result. These don’t have to be long, drawn-out events that take place over a number of days with people coming in from all over the world.
Yes – I’m a big fan of gaming. Gaming has always been a powerful aspect of the military. You religiously gam a plan every time you step out of the door to make sure it’s fit for purpose. I think that all organisations should be doing this because it’s a way they can enhance their business.
The mistake that some organisations make is presuming they have to wait until their game plan is extremely polished, but then they become emotionally attached to it. So when you show them it won’t necessarily work, they hate you for it.
For example, in gaming for the recession, you can bring in clients and tell them what you think you might deliver and get a real reaction from them as part of that game. By doing this, you’re enhancing those social connections between you and the different parts of your business ecosystem.
Absolutely! There’s a huge number of different biases that we’re subject to, but loss aversion is quite a key one. It’s common to get attached to the first thing that seems to work and be convinced that it will work, and we must have been right in the first place. Then you can get confirmation bias kicking in, where you’re only looking for information that supports the decisions that you’ve made, and you’re wilfully blind to all of the information that is telling you the opposite.
This is where diversity of thinking becomes important because they are less impacted by the immediate bias we have from doing the same thing every day in our own business.
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