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What hockey goalies and Air Force pilots can teach us about adapting to change in business

Have you ever really thought about goalies? I know it sounds like a weird question out of context, but indulge me for a moment.

If you think about it, it’s a pretty strange job. You have a single individual whose job it is to stand in the path of a projectile and block the goal with their body. The opponents can approach in whatever configuration they want and attack from any angle. The goalie has to stay within a limited area to do their job and the area they are protecting is always bigger than the body they must use to protect it.

Picture this: you are standing in a net, with skates on your feet and 50 pounds of gear on your body. Your visibility is impaired by a mask as you look at another player about 200 feet away start their run toward you. The opposing team is moving around 20 miles an hour and flipping passes back and forth to each other. Your defenders are moving around just as quickly trying to disrupt the play. Then the play gets set up and your opponent lines up and shoots the puck at you at around 100 mph.

Stopping that puck from going in is not a certainty. In fact with the puck moving that fast, I might be tempted to mistake the game for dodgeball. But being a goalie is not like playing dodgeball. In dodgeball, every answer is correct except one. You can be anywhere except where the ball is. A goalie has only one correct solution to the problem out of a huge number of possibilities.

In ice hockey or soccer, the goalie’s job is to watch everything that is going on and then react accordingly. Both of these are fast moving sports with very fluid play, turnovers of possession happening constantly and infrequent stoppages. They are also very low scoring games. If we consider another sport with a goalie, like water polo, we see the same thing.

Let’s contrast that for a moment with sports without a goalie like football or basketball. These games are much higher scoring games, have much more frequent stoppages of play and something else that I want to draw your attention to: more formalized and rehearsed pre-planned plays. Even their defenses are highly practiced arrangements.

The execution of these pre-arranged plays, both offensive and defensive, is honed and perfected. In sports like baseball, a batter is not making many decisions. If the pitch is acceptable, they are swinging a bat with all of the million hours of practice behind them to try and perform a single physical action as perfectly as possible.

All of these team sports involve heavy preparation and the ability to react in the moment, but the sports with goalies focus on a mindset of preparedness, constant change and adaptability, while the ones without goalies include a greater emphasis on pre-made battle plans.

So what is it that the goalie is doing when the ball is downfield or the puck is at the other end of the ice? At first they are observing. They are taking in every piece of information they can, using every tool available to them. But they aren’t just taking information in. They are constantly making small positioning adjustments, and orienting themselves to be in the best possible situation to react when the time is right. Once that time comes they make a split second decision and act, propelling their bodies into motion.

I started thinking about how this approach to being prepared for anything was something we could learn from in the world of business. How it is problematic learning specific technical skills when they will likely be obsolete so quickly. How certifications in using tools or performing tasks will have less meaning when we have no idea what those tasks will look like in just a few short years. The key skill needs to be our ability to adapt, no matter what is coming our way. Author and speaker Yuval Harari has done a great job studying and backing this theory up.

For the sake of this article, I am going to assume that I don’t need to convince you about the importance of managing change. Instead, I am going to explore how we can do it.

The US military has already done a ton of work on the topic of managing change. They have come up with some truly spectacular ideas over the years, a personal favourite of mine being the Marine Corps’ famous “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.” However, a less well-known one outside of the military is the Air Force’s OODA loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.

If it seems too structured and formal of a process to occur in a split second, remember that it was developed to help Air Force pilots win dog fights in jets often moving as fast as the speed of sound. One of the original describers of the OODA loop, Colonel John Boyd, theorized that when two fighter pilots were in that dog fight, the one that could get through the OODA loop fastest was most likely to win.

I believe it is a very useful model for identifying the different stages of how we make decisions and then act on them. Once we have identified these different stages, we can start taking them apart, understanding them, and getting better at each of them.

Stage one: Observe

To observe means to collect all the relevant information and evidence you can. If the OODA loop is a machine, then observations are its fuel. What happens if you put diesel fuel into a non-diesel engine? What happens if a self-driving car observes the shadow of a tree branch? What happens if sweat drips into a goalie’s eyes and their depth perception is off?

The key to the entire exercise is accurate and timely data. More information, if it is not highly accurate, is worse than useless. We have to challenge if the data reports we look at every day actually tell us what we need to know. Look at how data is collected, and try to get information flowing through the collection mechanism more quickly by identifying and busting bottlenecks.

Then, collect non-traditional evidence: weak-signals, or anecdotal observations from smart people in the field. Don’t move based on them, but use them to gut-check what the hard evidence is telling you.

Stage two: Orient

The best way to describe this relates to how my dad taught me to drive. When you change lanes, don’t do it all at once, do it gradually. Position yourself to start moving towards an opening in the flow of traffic then slowly, with the constant awareness of what’s going on and the ability to adjust your course, start to move.

For a goalie to make the save, they need to be in motion long before the ball is launched. How do we translate this into the business world? I like to make small, initial investments in projects and then gradually increase or shift, based on what happens. Some people will advocate jumping in with both feet, but my dad’s advice on moving gradually has kept me from having countless accidents over the years. Essentially, you are making a flexible plan for what to do as you move in that direction. It’s nothing that can’t be altered depending on the feedback, but enough guidance so that when you are ready, you know how to act.

This is also where the “Loop” in OODA comes in. As you shift slowly, you keep feeding back observations. Frequent iterations are critical at this stage.

Stage three: Decision

For me, this step is all about commitment. You have the best information you can get and have positioned yourself to best take advantage of the opportunity. Now, you just need to pick the right moment. There is a ton of analysis that goes into this step, but really you are trying to answer whether now is the right time to move. Once that decision is made, do not hesitate. The time for that has passed.

Stage four: Act

Follow the plan, but keep collecting feedback on how it is working. Don’t be afraid to go back to the beginning of your loop over and over again.

The thing is, after being in business all these years, I have found that all those punchy, numbered list-form articles are all pretty situational. They are click-bait and rarely contain much usable wisdom. The only useful and universal piece of business advice I have ever come across is that in every situation you need to get the best information you can, analyze it, prepare to act in conjunction with that analysis, and act in a timely fashion. If you are able to run through that process decently for a high percentage of the time, then you have a decent chance of being successful at what you are attempting.

I think a goalie operates under the same principles and Air Force pilots have learned this same lesson. As business leaders we can adopt some of this wisdom and who knows, maybe even make some spectacular saves.

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