Posted: May 23, 2013
Do you find that you waste a lot of time and effort on initiatives that aren’t strictly “on strategy” or don’t produce results that are on your list of KPIs? These days no business can afford inefficiency, and this kind of wastage is one of the worst, but as pressure mounts in the boardroom to perform in increasingly tougher markets it seems to be happening more and more. Could it be the “Chimp inside”?
As my regular readers will know, I often compare aspects of sport and sportspeople with people and practices in business. I have also, in the past spoken both here and in my seminars, on how primal instincts influence purchase decisions. Now the two topics have come together in a book by the sports psychologist Steve Peters called “The Chimp Paradox”.
Steve is the man attributed with the success of the British cycling team, but has a string of other high profile successes to his name. His theory, very quickly explained, is that our primal instincts of fight or flight cause us to make advance judgements of our likelihood of success in any given challenge which, even though our rational side may be conditioned to rise to the challenge anyway, will always take the edge off our performance. Somewhere in the back of your mind when you line up on the starting blocks alongside Usein Bolt, something in the back of your mind will tell you don’t have a payer! That little voice is your Chimp.
The idea that I have explored in the past relative to purchasing decisions is that our primal instincts pre-condition us to buy the stuff we love. We try to be all grown-up of course, but that little voice is always telling us “You know you want it” so we take the plunge and then try to rationalise the decision with a load of argument and spreadsheets that confirm we made an entirely emotionless, practical decision. Forget it, you didn’t.
What Steve Peters does is help athletes train their chimp. He admits that he can’t take it’s influence out of your personal struggle entirely, but he says his success has come from showing sportspeople how to manage their chimp. We can all do this, some of us, admittedly, better than others and once we do, the chimp’s influence can be diminished and performance increases, but the tougher the challenge, the more likely you are to revert to chimp mode and its my belief that this is what we are witnessing in many of our boardrooms today.
You have to accept that there is another influence going on here too. After all, some people are just better at handling pressure than others so their “chimp threshold” is higher, but it seems likely that these factors are tightly bound together. I’ve seen and heard of many businesses, large and small, whose approach to business has been swinging around all over the place. Managers have been issued with instructions to initiate unplanned activity or initiatives, or change priorities in ways that appear to have no bearing on the original strategy, not always a bad thing in the appropriate context, but all too often they prove to be a waste of time, money and effort.
This kind of behaviour is the product of poorly managed chimps responding to immediate issues. For example, a CEO who is driven primarily by sales targets can lose sight of the fact that maybe the sales targets should change or the KPIs switched to something else rather than change the marketing strategy.
Chimps gain greatest influence and do most mischief in organistions with a short-term focus. The time scales of those businesses that haven’t yet recognised that tactically-driven businesses almost always fail, create acute pressure on senior managers to “appear to be doing something” when sales slip. I’m not saying that they should just kick-back and let the slide continue, but short-termists rarely take their time to study the big picture and often the actions needed to reverse a short-term decline will counter vital actions within the longer-term strategy. Short-termists hand control over to the chimp. If they were good enough at handling pressure to be able to take a step back and view the long-term consequences of their current performance they would be less likely to damage the business that investors actually invested in.
Knee-jerk management is never a good thing, but as pressure mounts it becomes increasingly difficult to manage the chimp. The paradox is, that its when pressure is at its highest its the time you least need a monkey in the driving seat!