Are You Using Your Noggin?



Jim Courier, in his post match interview with Grigor Dmitrov, after his win over Nick Kyrgios, said ‘you used your noggin’.  The context – a tight match, with a number of twists and turns, was Dmitrov’s ability to change his return of serve tactics during the match, stepping in to give Kyrgios less time on the next shot.

In the BBC radio commentary, Leon Smith, British Davis Cup Captain, was asked about the top players dealing with the mental pressures of competing at this level and dealing with the various twists and turns in a match.  Leon has been close to Andy Murray for many years and while not giving too much away, he stated that Andy, like all the players at the very top of the game, always has a plan.

We may often think about the plan in the context of the project plan that’s put together at the outset of a project, or the agenda for a meeting or presentation.  However, for the top players, like Murray, there are two types of plan.  As Leon articulated, Andy Murray loves doing the analysis of his opponents and working out a match plan ahead of time and all top players do this.  However, what happens when the flow of the match goes against you, or your level of play drops and the doubt creeps in?

For the top players they plan for this.  Sure, changing the game plan may be part of it when the opponent is getting the better of you.  But what if it is a drop in your own level of play and your confidence in your own ability to hit the shots you’re capable of dissipates, as it does to all at some point?  The reason the very best remain at the top so consistently is not only that they plan for these eventualities too but that they have processes to help them recognise and del with these moments.  They practice them and are very good at putting them in place.

It’s a challenge for us in the work context as well, for example in meetings or giving a presentation.  We may put an agenda together but how do we respond when a senior person in the room spends most of the allocated time on the first slide of our deck, or wants to take the agenda in a different direction to that we envisaged.

It’s often difficult to find the time in our busy schedules to prepare for a meeting or presentation in the first place and then we are most likely to plan for it going a particularly way.  However, in reality given meetings rarely go as expected we need to think through potential options and learn not to be de-railed by them.  There are a number of different ways of dealing with these types of moment – winging it is rarely successful.

An initial recommendation would be to learn to stay present – different strategies work for different people.  It’s also worth remembering, as one military strategist put it many years ago ‘no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy’. There are a number of other things we can do – many of which we can learn from elite athletes – more to come!

Fast Fail – We can’t learn from our failures if we don’t admit them!


Many of you will have heard or seen the famous Michael Jordan quote:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Of course, in sport judgment about success or failure is usually clear.  In tennis there are no draws.  In football (soccer) at the end of the season there is one team that wins the league.

In financial services, the industry where I have done much of my work, there has been an obsession with agility and innovation in recent years and the term ‘fast fail’ (or fail fast) has become overused!  Of course, there is immense value in proving that something doesn’t work quickly rather than wasting months on some application or initiative that ultimately would have failed to work effectively.  There is even greater value in the learning we can take from these exercises.

There is a significant cultural problem, however, which is how do we learn in environments that do not readily tolerate failure.  In fact the cultural norms of top down directive management, where bad news does not easily travel back up the line, often lead to organizational denial around failure.

I remember attending a steering committee for a major programme at a global bank, where it became clear that items on the plan that should have been complete hadn’t even been started!  There was a distinct reluctance by some of the senior people in the meeting to even acknowledge this, never mind the consideration of changing the plan to reflect reality!  It would have meant openly admitting the next major delivery would not be achieved on a previously agreed date.

Top athletes like Jordan and Federer strive for success but readily admit when they come up short and learn from it.  How often do we attend job interviews, either as interviewers or candidates and have honest conversations about how we screwed up and what we learnt from it?

This one of a number of cultural traits in the corporate world that needs to be addressed!  More to follow, including lessons from the history of financial markets.