New Beginnings

As the Christmas holiday starts to fade into yet another memory of over-indulgence, I am sure that some of you feel the same guilt as I do, based on our failure to maintain all of our ‘New-Year’ resolution targets. The commitment to ‘do something’ about our fitness, weight, un-tidy garage etc. often seems to weaken quite quickly.

What is the relevance of this low ‘sticking power’ to thinking about a new career, or for that matter to thinking about a new venture that might require some expert new talent?  If you are considering a new job – surely it is precisely the expertise gained in previous roles that makes you a marketable asset in a potentially new position.  Actually, this is probably where the complexity and rapidly changing nature of almost any working environment might require a new skill.  You might call it flexibility, or even more radically the ability to handle chaotic scenarios where most of what you encounter is new.

Strategists call this ‘blue ocean’ thinking – and the elements of Columbus’ risky venture 500+ years ago can be seen in many organisational scenarios today:

  • The ability to think boldly – with a clear vision.
  • The ability to ‘let-go’ of the status quo – even if it appears infinitely safer than where you trying to get to.
  • The ability to ‘sell’ what you think – to your ‘ship mates’ who may not share your pioneering spirit.

The commercial world is littered with such examples that I use when discussing this type of ‘strategic thinking’ with a new group of MBA students, and my favourite is the recent history of the Kodak company.

For those of a certain generation, those small iconic rolls of film were the partner to almost every significant personal and family event that had to be recorded – birthdays, holidays, graduations etc.  Daniel Stern got it exactly right when he felt the need to capture Billy Crystal’s recently gored ‘derrière’, after the Pamplona Bull-Run, in the first City Slickers film:

‘...are you kidding?  This is a Kodak moment!’ summed it up exactly. 

Kodak has been effectively bankrupt since 2000 and celluloid film has virtually disappeared with them. What is astounding is that they actually held an early lead in digital photography.  The fact that Kodak decided not to develop this technology, as it might harm their core business of film sales and negative development, is one of the clearest cases of ‘not wanting to lose sight of land’ you can find.

The basic idea of flexibility would not be a new idea to most job candidates, however the notion that you might need to feel somewhat awkward or unsettled by such a requirement might be alarming – again you might expect that you are being considered for a new position because of what you have achieved – not for what you are un-aware of.

For me this type of flexibility is demonstrated by languages – specifically the study and use of more than one of them. Learning a new language is hard, the older you get the harder it becomes – your brain literally fights against this new imposter. It makes you feel awkward and ineffective as you struggle to understand a new method for that most basic of functions – communication.

On our working travels together in Asia, my wife has taught a large number of children that are effectively tri-lingual by the age of 6. They do not divide the world by grammar, case and tense – they actually apply what word or phrase is apt from a single flexible storage of all the words they know – regardless from which culture these words originated.  I tried this trick in my early 40s when I was asked to translate directly between German and Japanese – both languages that I know fairly well.  My brain was hard-wired to use English as its ‘inflexible base’ to such an extent – that I had to pause between each phrase so it could catch-up.  I was effectively the living ‘buffer wheel’ that annoys us so much when our ‘phones will not work fast enough.

I also see this flexibility demonstrated when I teach our international business undergraduates – 90% of whom do not have English as their first language.  Imagine how hard it is to learn new concepts in a new language – with all of the nuances and subtle emphases of my English making it doubly complex for these students.  

What happens at the end of these sessions is also remarkable – as there is sudden increase in energy that I like to think is because of my lecture and not just because of its ending!  All of the students revert back to simultaneously using whichever of their many languages they need to – and they shift between them as easily as I change gears on my morning drive to the university.  It is an astounding display of brain flexibility – that should be celebrated and developed.  Contrast this with the worrying idea from the USA that use of languages other than English are being frowned upon in some locations.

So, when that interviewer asks you to describe a scenario that made you try something new – they are actually preparing you for an organisation that needs change – and they might be looking to you to drive that change towards an as yet undefined scenario.  It will almost certainly feel awkward to venture into this new territory.

To re-use Gene Kranz words as he exhorted the Apollo 13 ground crews to try anything and everything to get that haemorrhaging space craft back to earth safely:

“… failure to try something new is not an option.”

So, in 2020 as well as the planned gym or fitness regime – try something really new that makes you feel awkward and embrace that feeling.

New beginnings – get to it and good luck!


Dr Matthew Bennett, Associate MBA Course Director & Assistant Professor in Strategy and Operations Management at Coventry Business School, Focusing on all themes of global automotive supply and retail processes. Previously worked in the Far East for over 10 years in the luxury automotive market.