One of my favorite athletes was Peyton Manning. Every week was a case study in leadership as he walked to the line of scrimmage, assessed the defense, and shouted his famous “Omaha’s” to adjust to the situation and call the play. Manning revolutionized the game and led several of the most powerful offenses that the NFL has ever seen. Beyond the championships and stats, Manning’s approach was a demonstration in adaptability, a skill that I believe is the most important capability any leader or company can possess in today’s ever-changing environment.
The world is evolving at a pace that is unprecedented. These days, things rarely go as planned. For leaders, it’s not just what you know, but how you’re able to apply that learning to a shifting landscape that separates the winners from the losers. The role of today’s leader is much like the way Peyton Manning ran his offense – conducting a real-time assessment of the moving pieces, seeing the seams where opportunities exist, and directing your team to capitalize on those opportunities. Of course, you want to enter every game having studied and developed a strategy to win, but you must be equally prepared to improvise and adapt based on the reality of the moment. In football, they call this the “hurry-up” or “no huddle” offense. In business, we call it “contingency planning.”
To be clear, good leaders don’t make things up as they go along. In fact, the opposite is true. Those who practice a “no huddle offense” become keenly aware of their shifting responsibility in any situation, learn to make the shift without unnecessary mistakes, and are often the best conditioned athletes on the field. Said another way, the more work you put in ahead of time, the more plays you “practice,” the more prepared you will be to adjust to changing circumstances. Success arrives when hard work intersects with opportunity.
Here are the three keys to contingency planning:
I’ve always believed in studying for the mid-term the first day of the semester. The more you know ahead of time, the more research you put in – the more prepared you will be when the moment of decision arises. This means knowing as much as you can about your customer, your competitor and yourself. Contingency planning is preparing for “if-then” scenarios, and practicing what will be required to execute a successful pivot as situations arise. Your teams should know for every situation what they need to do differently when you call “Omaha.”
Savor the surprises. It’s natural to look for validation that your plan is working, but great leaders look for things they had not anticipated – areas where things are unfolding differently than they had planned. That’s why Peyton constantly scanned the defense. He purposely looked for these variations. Like the quarterback on a team, a leader’s job is to assess the shifting landscape, highlight the variation, and call out “the audible” or “pivot” to capitalize and ensure your team comes out ahead.
Be ready and willing to adjust. In Peyton’s earliest days in the NFL, I can remember the critics suggesting he wasn’t ready to play at the elite level because he was changing the play a half-dozen times each time he approached the line of scrimmage. The critics incorrectly assumed this reflected a lack of preparation or indecisiveness, when the opposite was true. He was capitalizing on the shifting landscape and keeping his competitors off balance. For business leaders, this means falling in love with the problem, not your solution. This approach was championed by Toyota and their 7-1 model, where teams are challenged to present at least seven different ways of solving a problem before being permitted to narrow down to one recommendation. At Intuit, we call this “going broad to go narrow,” considering many possible solutions to find the right path forward.
Today’s environment is shifting faster than any one leader or team can predict. As a result, it’s not what we know or how great our plan is that matters – it’s how skilled we’ve become at adapting to the changing world and executing real-time pivots that will determine our success.