• Petri Rikkinen

Can obstacles prompt people to look at the big picture and open up thinking?

When things don't go smooth, that reveals our business plan resilience. We say "Love the problem, and not the solution" and "Try fast, fail fast". Intuitively, we know that obstacles are uncomfortable but still something to embrace.


An obstacle such as a crisis is always a sum of consequences, not a single action or process.

We know that significant catastrophes, such as Chernobyl, was a sum of much more than just a rupture of a reactor. Chernobyl included wrong decisions, operative and technology issues, flawed design, and untrained personnel. If I have an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise and too little sleep, my body will create physical illness. If it is a stroke, it is much more than a single block.


In business, obstacles can tell a lot about our plans' resilience and the organization's culture.


If a strategy fails, it shows that there are some critical underlying assumptions to re-think. Like in Chernobyl, the strategic obstacle is complex roadblock; Obstacle is a sum of biased assumptions, operative and technology issues, flawed design, and untrained personnel.


Are we sensitive enough to notice signs of distractions, which can escalate into an obstacle?

A sensitive mindset is very much related to organizational culture, emotions and thinking. Fear of questioning your colleagues can be difficult without a culture of trust. Labelling is an example of group thinking. A group can think of declining revenue as hick-up "because we've been so successful so far" or "that's not a big deal".


For telco's, Skype might have appeared as a distraction back in days. However, as years passed, it had a massive impact on the business and disrupted the traditional telco industry. Andrew Grove wrote in 1999, "Only the Paranoid Survive".


Obstacles are the ultimate backstop we need to face.

If I have a flat tire, I need to either fix the tire or find an alternative way to get home. The flat tire is manageable. A massive business failure takes more time to materialize and requires more effort to solve.


What can you do to manage obstacles?


Find ways to make abstract strategies and plans tangible in advance.

For companies, business obstacles are usually unexpected, unprepared events that significantly impact business. Ask ‘what if’ questions to stress-test your strategy choices. Identify critical uncertainties and speculate links between them. The more causal links you identify, the more critical the uncertainty will be. Use uncertainties to build different scenarios of probable futures and backcast from future potential consequences. Use a systematic approach for scenarios to minimize biased thinking.


Check the culture. Re-assess issues that you or colleagues have labelled as 'distractions'; those might become major 'obstacles'. Become paranoid optimist as venture capitalist Brad Feld in 2015, and Risto Siilasmaa in 2018 wrote. Paranoid optimist both dreams and criticizes. Culture hide, but you can assess it by exploring tabus - themes that the company is proud of and topics that are not discussed or overlooked.


If the worst-case scenario has already happened, embrace it as an opportunity to look at the big picture and see what you can make out of it. The obstacle can push the company towards new opportunities, create the courage to pivot or restructure its current doing. Eventually, obstacles force us to look at the big picture and open up to think and see new opportunities.