You really have no idea where the puck is going to be, so stop trying to skate there

hockey-strideSince Round 1 of the NHL playoffs are well underway this seemed like the most appropriate thing to talk about.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

There’s no doubt that most people reading this have heard this quote in some sort of business context at some point, and I’m guessing the person repeating it really thought he/she was blowing your mind with insight when he/she said it. But honestly, I’m not sure if there’s a quote I hate more when it comes to corporate world.

Before I go too deep into this, I’ll acknowledge the fact that as I googled the exact quote, I found an article, that appears to cover my exact sentiment but a generally different argument against the quote:

The quote itself originally comes from hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who coined the phrase to describe the source of his greatness, but it’s taken a life of its own in the corporate world, with the sentiment being that if an organization knows exactly what they need to be doing in the future, they can do it perfectly. Brilliant, that makes it so easy, right?

What’s funny is that, to continue borrowing the ice hockey analogy, the quote actually tells you nothing about how to be prepared for anything more than the next few seconds. Knowing where the puck is going is great for Wayne Gretzky on the ice, but it doesn’t help a coach approach the game for all the situations he might face late in the game (down a goal, up a goal, tie, 5-on-3, trying to kill a 5-on-3, etc); and it also doesn’t help the GM figure out what the roster will look like in 3 years, and how to balance winning today versus being competitive tomorrow.

In short, knowing where the puck is going is great for your day-to-day operations but it’s almost worthless for you strategic planning. If you have the ability to predict and support a surge in activity (whether its manufacturing, supply chain or support-related), that’s great, but that’s not what is going to keep your organization afloat in 10 years. The really successful coaches and franchises are busy imagining every possible future and preparing for as many of them as possible. When those situations arise, the strategists (the coaches and general managers) have already done their homework and have a good idea what they’re going to do in a very time-crunched environment (i.e. a 60-second timeout, ar being on the clock during the draft).

You have no idea where the puck is going to be in 10 years, and worse off, you have no idea what you’ll be trying to do with it. It’s very smart to be trying to figure both of those things out, and you should continue to get better at that. But in reality, you can try to predict where it’ll be and prepare for that singular future, or you can imagine every scenario for that puck and figure out how your organization will be competitive in each of those situations. If you’re smart, you’re consistently revisiting those scenarios, coming up with new ones, getting rid of unrealistic ones and preparing for all of them.

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04 2016

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