The success paradox

A challenge many organisations end up facing at some stage is the ironic tipping point where their success turns from being an asset to a liability. Rapid scaling can result in decision-making paralysis as stakeholder chains grow longer. Periods of financial stability create an adversity to upsetting the apple cart. Whether it’s a matter of the ship becoming bigger, or a reluctance to turn the wheel, making it difficult to change direction.

When you reach a point where the seas are changing quicker than our metaphorical ship can turn, you could say that you have a problem. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself though. A good ship’s captain can simply plan major turns farther ahead, plot better courses and simply plough through rough seas. It’s when you’re navigating increasingly difficult seas while competing against newer, faster, more agile ships that you have yourself a true conundrum—at some point, something simply has to give.

Tides of our lives

We live in an era where constant, rapid change is the new status quo. Each and every year we see new crops of smartphones roll out like clockwork. These often dwarf the best capabilities of the previous year’s generation. New types of digital devices continue to emerge along the spectrum of hybridisation between PCs, tablets and those small slabs of glass we love to keep in our hands. This spectrum is ever expanding into entirely new forms such as wearables, robots, drones, homes and automobiles.

Below the swirling surface, the underlying technologies that enable all of these new digital devices are shifting themselves as a result of the rush towards big data and the desire to make sense of it by way of predictive algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence or the blockchain.

And so we leap from our classic ‘captain of a big ship’ metaphor into a veritable soup of devices and acronyms which might begin to sound like a really bad late 1970s concept fiction project. We didn’t even get to the Millenials yet either.


The biggest variable in this equation is the captain. On one hand, we have the kind of captain who’ll rally the crew with a fiery speech and keep sailing on in the same direction in the same old stoic, dapper, figurehead—like fashion. This type of captain might appear to be the classic model of a heroic leadership figure which is great. The problem here is the part where we’re on a giant ship in a 1980s space rock drama full of Millenials and hoverboards and bitcoin.

There’s another type of captain though. The type who’s willing to call together the entire crew from bosun to boilerman, ask some hard questions and, depending on the answers, willing to plunge elbow deep into the oiliest muck plugging holes or rip up the map, dump the cargo and sail in a completely new direction on the horizon. Or possibly rethink the entire ship. This type of captain might seem like a bit of a reckless Jack Sparrow-ish pirate-like figure but on the upside, they recognise that anything is possible. Up is down, so to speak.

Back to reality

Of course reality is a bit more complex than any amount of simple binaries, cute metaphors and ad hoc buzzwords in a single article can convey. The good news is that this constant tide of change we live in is wonderful as long as you have the right mindset. More is possible now than at any other point in human history. All it takes is a willingness to start by asking the right questions. Big questions. Seemingly obvious questions even. What does success look like? Where do you want to go? Who are your customers? What do your customers really want? What is your purpose? Why should anybody care?

Asking a few big questions inevitably leads to even more questions. What do you know? How do you know? What don’t you know? Some of those questions will have answers and some won’t but either one is perfectly okay because if you’ve gotten this far then you’re already at the beginning of a serious conversation about change which, if nurtured just right, will eventually blossom into new challenges, ideas, opportunities and solutions being identified.

A little more conversation

If all of this sounds too good to be true that’s because it is. The ability to have valuable, productive and insightful conversations comes with a few requirements.

The first and foremost attributes of any productive conversations about change are open-mindedness, honesty, transparency and a lack of personal bias. These values are what enables the level of objectivity needed to comprehensively examine the present, envision future success and explore opportunities for change. The ‘gotcha’ is that these values aren’t always naturally manifested in professional conversations even assuming the best of intentions.

Second, you need the right voices in the room. The odds are pretty good that conversations limited to the same old voices will result in the same old things being said. If you want to hear anything new then you need to allow new voices to join the conversation. Again, there’s some paradoxical ‘gotcha’s to expanding participation in conversations about change. Sample size is one – adding too few new voices can result in any value simply being drowned out while having too many voices in a conversation will often lead to decision paralysis. Diversity is another – not enough diversity tends to skew the conversation whereas too much diversity makes it challenging to identify common threads.

Last but not least is the need for structure. A certain amount of structure helps as well in order to keep things focused, on topic and on track. The flipside is that too much structure stifles conversation like nitrogen and carbon dioxide snuff out flames.

Lighting the fire

So how on earth do we enable these conversations to happen then? More leadership? Less leadership? Both of those are possibilities but there’s also a third option, which is to create a parallel universe. A safe space of sorts, where honest, open and critical conversation can happen.

The ability to create such a space isn’t tied to any particular leadership model. All that’s required to kick things off is the right mindset. A mindset which embraces and even relishes change is the lynchpin which enables the right conversations to take place about change, which in turn are what eventually translate into action and tangible real-world results. Real change.

Cultivating a change-friendly mindset and creating a space which allows quality conversations to happen might seem almost naively simple but actually making it happen could well be the ultimate organizational magic trick of our time.

There’s far worse places to be in stormy seas of change than on a big ship, or any ship at all for that matter. Even one with a good bit of rust. It’s what comes next that matters.

Ryan Copeland, Senior UX Designer, Dubai