I was on a flight from New York to Las Vegas and flying first class (these were the old days). We had yet to take off and the plane was still filling with passengers. I was in a window seat and the aisle seat next to me was still vacant.
An older African American man arrived, dropped his briefcase on the seat and immediately visited the rest room. He had looked very familiar to me so I beckoned the steward.
What is the gentleman’s name in this seat? I asked.
The steward consulted his manifest.
“Futch,” he finally said.
I had my man.
I would be sitting next to legendary boxing trainer, Eddie Futch, for the next few hours. As a lifelong boxing fan – and sometime practitioner – it was the equivalent of the proverbial hog heaven.
Eddie Futch had been involved in boxing for nearly 70 years at that time. A boxer himself until a heart problem forced him to switch to the other side of the ropes, he had trained 17 world champions at one time or another including Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. When he was still boxing himself in his earlier days, he had been the favorite sparring partner for Joe Louis, despite being outweighed by 70 pounds. Louis liked sparring with Eddie because he was so fast. “If I can hit you, Eddie’ the legendary champ would say, “I can hit anybody.”
In our four hours of conversation that day, I remember one particular story Eddie told me with particular intensity.
He had been pursued by heavyweight contender, Riddick Bowe, who begged Futch to become his trainer. Eddie had heard that Bowe, while talented, was lazy and reluctant to approach training with any real discipline. So Eddie would say “no” and Bowe would continue to show up at fights he was working and pester him again.
Finally, Eddie got tired of the act and agreed to train Bowe if he promised to adhere to the strict training regimen Eddie would lay down.
The first thing Eddie told him to do was to begin his roadwork schedule at 5:00 AM
on a winter Monday in New York. Then Eddie told Bowe that he would be on his honor to meet the schedule because Eddie had a business engagement that would require him to leave town for the week.
“But,” Eddie told me, “ I wasn’t really leaving town. I just wanted to test Bowe.”
So, just before 5:00 AM that Monday, Eddie got into his car and began to drive Bowe’s roadwork route in reverse. It was freezing cold, dark and snowing. As Eddie neared to first part of the course, he saw someone running in the swirling flurries.
“Damn, here comes Bowe,” Eddie would recall.
After that, Eddie trained Bowe until his bad behavior once again reared its head.
But Futch had made his key point to me: you have to test your assumptions.
We are all making lots of assumptions about the future. In business it is a constant activity.
The problem is that we often let those assumptions remain unexamined.
Here are a few suggestions for all of us when it comes to making assumptions in a business context:
1. Analyze your plan and identify the assumptions that are embedded in it. Then
list them in descending order of importance or impact.
2. Determine how you will confirm – or invalidate – each of those assumptions.
3. Act upon what you learn.
This is a useful way of preventing unexamined assumptions from undermining our results.
Two other ideas are useful in this same context. One is the Post-Mortem session (what the military refers to as “after action reports”). This is an act of purposeful review of a previously executed initiative that asks the questions:
– What worked?
– What didn’t work?
– What would we do differently next time?
Like the experience I related a few posts back about the Field Leadership Reaction Course at Camp Pendleton, this approach to surfacing lessons as soon as possible is a great boon to continuous learning and improvement.
Perhaps an even more useful practice might well be the deployment of a Pre-Mortem Review. This would be an in-depth discussion with the appropriate team members about what could go wrong before an initiative is actually launched. The operative question here would be “What could go wrong as we try to implement this initiative?” The follow-up question: “How might we minimize the chance of that outcome?”
Simple ideas. But they have surprising power.