Monday, May 17, 2004

Complexity, Stress and Strategy

I have been told that Australian Aborigines hunt kangaroo in a manner that has lessons for the modem workplace. The Aborigines know that they are not as fast as the kangaroo. If they try to outrun it, the kangaroo will leave hem in the dust. Even if they try outlasting the kangaroo, they can't. The kangaroo, ideally suited for the outback, can both outrun and outlast the Aborigine. So, over the years, the Aborigines have developed a method, which is perhaps intuitive, whereby they use patience and knowledge of stress to hunt the kangaroo.

When the Aborigines hunt kangaroo and spot a likely candidate, they start on a course of relentless pursuit. They run after the kangaroo at a pace that they can sustain for long periods of time. The kangaroo, frightened by the humans, runs away at a high speed. When the kangaroo feels that it is far enough away, it stops to rest. Soon the Aborigines catch up, and once again, the frightened kangaroo runs away at a high speed. Again, the kangaroo rests, and again the Aborigines catch up.

This scenario is repeated over and over again. The result is that the kangaroo begins to experience great stress from running, resting, and then running again. The Aborigines study the kangaroo very carefully. When it appears that the kangaroo has been stressed enough, they move closer, but not close enough to frighten the kangaroo. Then they stop.

The kangaroo relaxes, thinking that it is safe. It may even go to sleep. Then the Aborigines attack. The kangaroo, relaxed and secure, cannot respond in time and is killed.

Is this not a metaphor for the stress of the work world? We constantly are being pursued by our competitors, by our co-workers, or by ourselves. We are called upon time and time again to respond with bursts of adrenaline, to respond quickly, and to move ahead. Because we experience stress in our work lives, as well as in our increasingly complex personal lives, we become harried like the kangaroo. And we become vulnerable.

The Japanese Samurai have understood since the 16th century how to cope with stress. Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan's greatest Samurai, wrote about this in his book, The Book of Five Rings. One of Musashi's teachings was the strategy of Releasing Four Hands. When you and your opponent are locked in a struggle, and no one can seem to gain an advantage, learn to release the four hands - to break off the combat cleanly by releasing both of your lands and those of the opponent. Then you can try a different approach that is strategically to your advantage. The one who breaks off the combat for an instant clearly has the advantage of having thought ahead as to what he was going to do. He can then take a positive action to gain an advantage. Many believe that Japanese businesses still have the roots of their strategies in these lessons from the Samurai.

Like the Samurai, the Aborigines break off the contest for a while. The kangaroo, which relaxes and thus gives away its advantage, suffers the consequences.

We live in an age of constant complexity, in which change is endemic and chaos is commonplace. Constant innovation is necessary for survival. A commitment to constant personal renewal is essential if we are to stay ahead of the changes. How can we do it all?

Remembering the strategies practiced by the Aborigines and the Samurai, we find two things that we can do. We have to be able to think ahead and be better strategic thinkers. We must be aware of the total environment within which we work and live and be able to read the signals of impending change long before they affect us. And we must be able to integrate many signals of change to reach a basic understanding of the driving forces behind the changes. We can also pace ourselves better. Instead of having to exert a burst of energy, in a panic mode, to get ahead, with resulting stress on our minds and bodies, we can pace ourselves. With the knowledge of where our opponents are headed, we can run at an even pace to stay ahead.

We must be able to live creatively productive lives. In order to do this we have to understand, among many other things, the nature of stress on our body, the effects of what we eat and drink, and those things that are effective to each of us individually to manage stress.

Armed with the knowledge of the driving forces, what strategies our opponents are using, we will know when we can relax, and when we must he alert. We can then integrate stress management practices into our lives, to allow us to reach baseline often. This will fuel us with the almost boundless energy that is natural to us, and enable us to face these times of chaos, complexity, and change each day without tearing ourselves down.

Paul Schumann

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