On a rough voyage, watch the horizon

The Storm

Photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash
Photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash

Business can be very fickle. Forever at the mercy of the economy, the labour market, delays in regulatory requirements. Overlay the uncertainties caused by Brexit (sorry, I had to mention it!), and it becomes challenging, very quickly. So how do you take all this into account and still develop something that passes muster as a business plan?  Whilst a fast-moving market can favour the agile entrepreneur of the start-up (at least in the short-term), how can more established companies ensure that they have a sustainable model that will adapt with the times?

If you’re a pictures-person like me, you’ll know the value in “seeing” the situation from a different perspective, so in this article, I’m going to use seafaring as a metaphor for running a business in uncertain times. If you’re a landlubber at heart, don’t worry, I’ll promise not to make you seasick!

And as a side note, if things are running sweetly for you now, remember that a good sailor will tell you that you should use any period of calm to check, and then re-check everything so that when a storm does come (and it will), you’re ready without needing to panic.

So, step number one – check the weather (market).

The Boat

Photo by Bobby Burch on Unsplash

Before you know where you are going, you have to know where you are, and in our metaphor, that means what kind of boat we are in.  Are you part of a business group, or a family company, or a sole trader? It seems obvious, but properly understanding your position will affect how realistic your goal can be – a local family-run company is unlikely to double its turnover within a few years without acquiring other businesses.
There is a decades-old process that derives from analysis of the American Air Force in Korea. The Americans could not understand why the inferior enemy aircraft could perform so well against superior US planes.  The breakthrough in thinking defined the OODA loop – Observe Orientate, Decide and Act, and the first part of this -”observe” was vital. The enemy planes had a bigger cockpit canopy that allowed the pilot to see much more around him, thus they were able to orientate more quickly….and so on (For the spotters out there, this is one reason why modern jet canopies appear very bulbous).

Going back to our sailing metaphor, we often hear people talk about things “not being on our radar”.  The truth is we often have often have our radar switched off, or we aren’t looking at the screen.

So step number two – where are you?

The Horizon

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

If you’ve ever been sailing, or on a ferry in rough seas, you may have heard the advice to stare at the horizon to stop yourself being sick. In turbulent times, one can say the same about business.  It is very easy, and indeed tempting, to be distracted by all the noise going on immediately around you. We’re constantly bombarded by experts saying that we need to do more advertising, put content on social media; that we need to develop a niche offering; that we need to diversify; there is always something “urgent”.  Now all of these things may be true, but we need to keep them in their place.  Just as if we were at sea, we should be aware of the conditions around us, and even interact with them, but we must never lose sight of the horizon, or things can go bad, very quickly.

Hence step number three – don’t get distracted.

The Harbour

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On the horizon of our business should be our goal. In our metaphorical picture, we might call this the harbour.  This may not be our ultimate destination, but it could be just one of a series of places we stop at on our voyage.  In the same way, our business goals could be one year, five-year or ten-year. They could all be very different, or very similar – perhaps even the same, but they all need to be realistic.  Confidently stating “we turned over £10m last year, so next year we want to achieve £13m” is just noise based on ego. There is rarely a good justification for these aspirations without using hard facts, so we might more usefully ask relevant  questions applicable to this example such as:

  • Will the local market grow by 30%?
  • Are there any large projects going through our sector right now?
  • Are there any business intelligence tools we can use?
  • Do we need to also increase our marketing spend by 30% or is the link between marketing and clients coupled differently?
  • Do we have the staff to manage 30% uplift, and if we need to bring in more, how will that impact on cashflow and profit?
  • What are the competitive threats to our business?  Are other operators going to use different technologies to increase their market share?

Now, the information we gathered in our market analysis is never complete and utterly reliable. Like being at sea in a storm (at least before satellite navigation!) it may not be totally clear where you are, or what is around you. Sometimes the best guess is all that is available, but it is important to record this in order to validate the accuracy of the guess when performance is reviewed.   At other times it can be relatively straightforward to find out, say, what your competitors are charging.

I’m not going to suggest what your business goals should be – there are too many sectors and many variables. But I am going to challenge you to make them SMART – specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based.

So step number four – where do you want to be?

The Race

Getting to the next harbour (business goal) is increasingly going to feel like a race.  

Understanding long-term changes will affect how your services are configured. For now, check the weather, understand where you are, and don’t get distracted but rather focus on where you want to be.

In the next article, we’ll look at how to get there.

HAL, Parliament and Business

“Open the pod bay doors HAL”

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So goes the chilling line in the classic Clarke/Kubrick SciFi “2001 A Space Odyssey”. HAL, the super-clever, artificially intelligent computer has just killed all but one of the crew on a mission to Jupiter. The sole survivor, Dave Bowman, is outside the mothership in a pod vehicle, trying to get back in. HAL refuses. Despite having no background music (or perhaps because of this), it’s an incredibly tense moment, superbly created in this 1968 (yes really!) movie.

H. Moebius Loop

It’s not until the sequel, “2010 Odyssey Two”, that we learn what the problem is. HAL did not become some self-aware monster a-la the Terminator series. His creator, Dr Chandra explains “He was instructed to lie……The situation was in conflict with the basic purpose of HAL’s design: The accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment. He became trapped. The technical term is an H. Moebius loop, which can happen in advanced computers with autonomous goal-seeking programs……HAL was told to lie by people who find it easy to lie. HAL doesn’t know how”


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If you live on planet earth, you’ll be aware of the current series of “crises” facing our political establishment.

Now, unlike many people, I actually think that on balance, our politicians do a pretty good job. Most of them fought long and hard to get a job which is in no way guaranteed. They work very long hours for surprisingly little money (barring outside interests), and so in general, and with caveats, I am prepared to suggest they are a force for good.

But I think our current predicament is very similar to HAL’s. 52% of the country instructed Parliament to take us out of the EU based on a binary-choice referendum. The problem is that our relationships with the EU are far from binary or simplistic. Indeed it is the most complex socio-economic mechanism on earth. The referendum result offered no solution on how the extraction was to happen, or indeed what the end-state should be. As a result, the various processing units (MPs_) within are own decision making computer (Parliament) are locked in conflict with each other, unable to reach consensus.


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So what can business learn from this?

  1. Probably the easiest lesson is that before anything is agreed (and remember “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed“) , the advocates of that course of action need to have a plan. Not necessarily massively detailed, but something that will credibly stand up as a business case and allow a decision to be made within the responsibilities inherent in being a director.
  2. The second lesson is that if your team, or at least the majority of them, are not on board, the wheels will come off the wagon some way down the track, regardless how much cajoling, encouragement and pressure you apply.
  3. The third lesson is that you leadership team need to be equipped with all the facts. They need to be able to have an open conversation in the board room without fear of reprisal. If you have an issue with certain members of your board, those relationships need addressing, nurturing, or in extremis, someone may need to go. That pain is far more preferable than being unable to decide anything at all.
  4. Finally, whilst hope and vision are a good things, they need substance. “Spin” can rapidly lead to lies, and as HAL so presciently showed us over 50 years ago, even the simplest lie can spiral out of control to have devastating consequences.

Strategies Not Shinies

I’ve recently had the pleasure of engaging with a local campaign group to re-open The Ivanhoe Line – a 30 mile rail track that has only been used for freight services for the last 50 years or so.

The project is exciting in many ways – it’s very credible (the line is already there), it’s environmentally beneficial, and it will make a very tangible impact on a community at the heart of England.

What is particularly exciting for me is that the group has two characteristics that radically improve the chance of success.

  1. Firstly they have a very clear goal – opening a particular stretch of track to passenger travel. This may seem obvious, but there are so many additional things they could include – adding more stations, linking into a whole mass transit system including buses, cycleways, taxis etc. All of these are of course important, but importantly they are outside of scope for the group. How many times have you got distracted by “shinies” – nice to haves that can cause such a distraction they make your project fail?
  2. Secondly they are building a strategy to reach the goal. Now when mention the word “strategy” eyes often glaze over or people claim to be “on it already”, when actually it is anything but. Good strategy involves the interaction of multiple lines of operation – how does production milestone reflect within your PR programme? How does a growth in your workforce match turnover without creating massive cashflow issues? And crucially, how does the chosen strategy dovetail with the people you have to deliver it? In the campaigning group, everyone is a volunteer – this means the strategy will be radically different to that of a public sector body or private company.

So what are your goals, and what strategy do you have to support them? Are they written down or do you just wing it everyday? Be honest with yourself and maybe take some time out to think about it.

Incidentally, if you are in the UK midlands, or just like trains, you might want to hook up with CRIL – the campaign to re-open the Ivanhoe Line. They’re on Facebook here: http://bit.ly/CRILFB and there’s a video below.

Surfing and the art of business



My brother is currently visiting the UK from Australia, and over a cup of tea we got talking about business and (of course), surfing.

Our business conversation covered how some people just seem to be lucky, while others slave away for years to no apparent end.  I mentioned the excellent TED talk by Bill Gross  on the biggest reason startups succeed (spoiler alert – it’s timing), and we drifted into surfing speak…..

According to Surfer Today, surfers only spend 8% of their time in the water riding waves.   54% of their time is spent paddling out, and 28% of their time is spent waiting for the right wave.  I’m not sure what the remaining 10% of the time is used for – perhaps looking cool or tanning?

Paddle out

In all the conversations I have had with business leaders, it is clear that an inordinate amount of time is spent generating new ideas, trying out different approaches, learning new disciplines, examining new markets.  This is likely to be happening at the same time as normal business is continuing, but for a startup, it represents a pure labour of love or “sweat equity”. This “paddling out” may never be worthwhile, but has got to happen in order to allow the good stuff later.  


Whilst the paddling out analogy will be familiar to most, I wonder how many leaders have had the self-discipline to wait for the right wave?  In our tea-time conversation, my brother and I debated this at some length. His view was that a surfer will use pure feeling to observe how a wave takes form and then make a snap decision to ride it or not.  In my view they are using a vast store of knowledge and experience to help them make that decision. Consider all the factors involved – the motion of the sea immediately around them, the shape, speed, size and angle of the wave approaching them; the presence of other surfers around them and the chance of a wave becoming crowded.  I’m sure a professional surfer could wax lyrical (or just wax!) about this all day, and it is probably a mix of both experience and gut-feel that gets the best result.

But it’s interesting to note that a surfer will spend 28% of their time waiting – letting opportunities pass by because they just don’t seem right. When money is waiting to be made, the pressure to ride the “first wave” is much more extreme.

Paddle hard

Once the wave has been selected, it’s time to line up the board and paddle hard.  Getting the board speed to match the wave speed then allows the surfer to pop-up and ride.  It’s a short period of intense activity that requires strength, skill and balance.


This is of course why most of us love business – that feeling of riding a wave of success. It’s still not straightforward and requires a lot of practice, but the rush of excitement is a huge motivator – so huge that when the wave eventually dies away, the first instinct is to paddle out again.

The dangers and disappointments

Surfing, it would seem, is the metaphor that keeps on giving!  

We’ve all been in business when sharks are in the water.

We’ve tried to surf a wave that is too busy with other surfers and have got hurt in some collision.

Many of us have tried to ride a wave that is dangerously too big and have had the very unpleasant experience of being half-drowned by the sheer power of what is going on around us.

So What?

If you’ve never done actual surfing, I highly recommend a weekend giving it a go – just being in the water will make you feel alive again.

But you may be asking “what’s the point writing this? So what if there is a nice metaphorical link between surfing and business?  How can it make me better about what I do?”

Well, there’s probably lots of parallels you can apply to be better at business, but I’m not going there today.

For me, it’s just a great reminder.  You don’t start surfing to be a world-champion surfer.  You start because it’s fun, it’s healthily addictive, and when you catch “that wave” it’ll change your life – swear to God.


Have an awesome day dude.

If alligators keep circling your canoe, maybe you’re in the wrong river.



Speak to just about any company and, if their honest, there will be some immediate issue that is vexing them – the alligator nearest the canoe – that one issue which is taking up 90% of their mental and emotional effort and that is distracting them from doing other, equally important work. Continue reading “If alligators keep circling your canoe, maybe you’re in the wrong river.”

Getting on the log

Way way back when I was undertaking officer training at Sandhurst I have a vivid memory of doing a log run.  In this pre-cursor to “fun” events like Tough Mudder, a team of people put a log on their shoulders and go running off into the local countryside.  It is a test of physical endurance, but more importantly, it’s a test of teamwork.  Very quickly the temptation is to give up, to become a “slacker” as the Army so aptly puts it. Continue reading “Getting on the log”