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Let the Race Run You

Allowing for Emergence in the Face of Uncertainty

by Jeremy Nulik

Just a few weeks after his father died, Dad sent me an email with a registration link for the GO! St. Louis Marathon. It was January 2005, and I had not really been training for a marathon or anything for that matter. But I think it was his tone that was compelling. It was along the lines of, “We must do this.” And so we met to train for what would be my first marathon together on the weekends.

On race day, the forecast was to be “unseasonably warm” with highs in the 80s as opposed to the 60s to which we had grown accustomed. During the race, Dad and I started strong. The pace felt easy. The conversation remained light. All was righteous. For a while anyway.

The first cramp hit me at mile 13. I quietly thought my quadricep had a funny feeling. It didn’t take long for me to realize this feeling had a great deal more permanence. Then I noticed a change in Dad’s running gait. He was favoring one side and making an occasional wince. Both of us had too much pride to say much. By mile 15, however, pride went away. We both began the death march of locking leg muscles.

Dad and I ended up finishing the thing under our collective willpower and stupidity. We stood in the runner village area, slightly teary eyed, and strained out smiles for post-race photos. It was not the kind of race day we had wanted to have. It didn’t feel like our race.

There is, however, some poetry about it all. In reality, it was not meant to be our race – it never is.

The business world is full of a prevailing wisdom that you can somehow wrest control over particular outcomes. If you happen to hold this belief, I entreat you to examine your delusion in light of scores of collective experiences.

It is likely you will discover that you have little control. The blow up my father and I faced on our day in the sun was not our first or our last one. The same is true for your organization. You will run into conditions that hamper your particular outcomes.

We live in a world of increasing uncertainty and unpredictable futures. The kind of posture or position you hope to take on as an organization in those futures has to be responsive and antifragile enough to withstand those futures.

Dwight Eisenhower is credited with saying “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Unpacking that, you can begin to see the magic is in your preparation and the interfaces you provide in the plan creation. The plan will meet a future. And that future will have its way with your plan if it is too rigid or unforgiving.

The best that you can do is to create the conditions for emerging ideas and new understanding. There are a number of ways to do this. It amounts to your ability to be open to innovation and reframing. One way to do this is to take a look at emerging trends and create images from multiple kinds of futures – especially ones you may not prefer. Does your market position still hold strong in the face of those kinds of futures? What would be the best or worst outcomes?

The purpose that Dad and I had for the marathon was as a tribute to the legacy of his father. The unpredictable occurred in the form of weather. Our willingness to remain loyal to the purpose performed that job better than anything we could try to orchestrate. The same can be true of your team as you go out to achieve your goals.

Jeremy Nulik (jeremy@bigwidesky.com) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.



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