My wife used to be a hospital midwife. She always had better work stories than me. One involved her getting to go 160km/h in the back of an ambulance. A birthing mother needed an emergency transfer between hospitals. Sirens blaring, the driver had eyes only for the highway. There was no time to focus on anything else.
In some workplaces, I’ve encountered this ‘highway’ mode approach. Everything is critical. The focus is narrow and short-term. Almost like survival mode. This works well for work with predictable outcomes. We pile on more and more gets done.
One problem. Work that is important is getting more complex. Creativity and problem solving within teams are often required. Outcomes are not predictable. Different situations need different approaches. We cannot expect a similar load of complex work to take the same time as our routine work.
When we try, it results in stress and dysfunction. We miss new opportunities due to our narrow focus. We feel active with no sense of progress. Think about how team engagement and innovative work deteriorates when in ‘highway’ mode.
For complex work we need to move from ‘highway’ mode to ‘safari’ mode.
In 2010, I went on safari in Kenya. Having grown up in Zimbabwe I had an inkling for what I was in for. I was not disappointed. Watching the drama of thousands of wildebeest migrating was a big tick off my bucket list.
I want to use the approach we took on safari to inform how we might approach complex work. At its core, it’s about preparing yourself to be at the right place at the right time. An active openness to serendipity.
We made the time. We dedicated five days to the adventure. Sometimes we’d sit by a waterhole for an hour waiting. For the next creative idea or for meaningful team relationships to foster, we have to allow time.
We slowed our pace to scan the environment. We would have missed a lot if we had rushed it. We seldom drove faster than 30km/h. At one point, we passed another group who advised of a lion sighting not far away. In that case, we made haste.
When there is much uncertainty around solutions we move slowly. Once there is certainty, then move quickly. Caution: check your biases to avoid overconfidence in certainty.
We had loose objectives and adapted to new information quickly. We’d start the day discussing where we might go and what we hoped to see. But, once we saw a small cloud of dust off in another direction (that signaled an amazing sighting of a group of meerkats scampering and popping up). We changed the initial plan to see what was happening.
Tightly defined goals can narrow focus and increase rigidity. In complex work we choose a direction and remain flexible to change direction. We keep looking to either side for signals of new opportunity.
I recorded what I saw through photos, videos and journal. We ticked off places we had been on the game park map. We’d find information about the more unusual animals we’d seen in a wildlife guide. We would debate our findings in the group.
When serendipity goes our way (sometimes it doesn’t), we must capitalise. We must be disciplined in our capture of novelty. If something works in a team session, make sure you record it. If an experiment produced something interesting, dive deeper to learn more. Debate and discuss to refine the finding.
It’s much easier to write these words than live them. Uncertainty often causes fear. Fear often makes humans move faster. Unless there is a different modewhich we consider more effective.
Will you value the ‘safari’ mode in your workplace? Will you invest the time to think and be ok with a slower pace for complex work? Will you keep your eyes open to capitalise when serendipity strikes?
Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.