You’re not usually likely to find football manager Iain Dowie and Rudyard Kipling nestled together so closely as they are in this post, but Dowie, who is credited with coining the term “bouncebackability”, would doubtless agree with the sentiments expressed in Kipling’s famous poem, If.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Dowie enjoyed some notable early success in his managerial career, being lauded for his ability, whilst working with tight budgets, to improve morale and cohesion in his squads. If you just look at the bald statistics, from 28 September 1998 to 9 May 2010 Dowie has a distinctly underwhelming 39.98% win record (comared with Sir Alex Ferguson’s 58.14%). Professional football is a particularly unforgiving environment but Dowie kept coming back, kept being invited in, by people who respected his ability to turn ailing fortunes around. In Dowie’s case it’s been an ongoing fight against diminishing returns at clubs where, with the best will in the world, simply avoiding relegation would represent a significant success.
Bouncebackability is now, of course, a buzzword for leaders. Failing fast and failing often are seen as hallmarks of successful people. They act quickly, even if they fail. Pixar’s Andrew Stanton is quoted thus, “My strategy has always been: Be wrong as fast as we can. Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it as fast as we can so we can get to the answer. You can’t get to adulthood before you go through puberty. I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.” As with all management theories, the trouble with this philosophy is what happens when you start to consider applying it in the real world with the people who really make businesses work – the employees, the human beings who deploy the strategy at the coal face. Whilst espousing the fail fast, fail often mantra, leaders are all too often unforgiving of failures the further down the food chain the failure happens. Building a resilient, agile business is vital in uncertain times. Some organisations have been deemed too big, too systemically important to fail, but fail they do, the lumbering giants not nimble enough to avoid the cliff edge. These failures fail people too. Sure, some investment bankers got canned in the crash, but so did 1,000s of blameless support staff. Those investment bankers are back in business, their bouncebackability ensured by our continuing reliance on the free flow of money through the markets.
So much of modern life is predicated on data, on information, statistics and analytics. All too often divorced from the real stories behind the numbers. We have more information at our fingertips than ever before. But, information is not knowledge. And knowledge is not intelligence or insight. As Norman Cousins noted, history is a vast early warning system. It’s an early warning system we fail to heed. Our celebration of wealth and celebrity at the expense of the very human beings who bounce back every day results in the floccinaucinihilipilification of ordinary working life. Theodore Roosevelt said that “far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”. We need to restore worth to the human beings who deliver productivity and profitability in our businesses. And you can’t do it simply by buying everyone a donut on a Friday.
Postscript: Many thanks to the three folk who provided the words that inspired this post. Floccinaucinihilipilification came via Kim Murphy, donut via Steve Coster and bouncebackability via Mervyn Dinnen