Wayne Gretzky’s dad famously told him to “skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” It’s a painfully overused business cliché – BUT, there’s some redeemable value here.
First, let’s state where the value is not.
Confession: I’m not “The Great One.” Not even a little bit. I can’t read the other players’ next move, let alone multiple moves in advance. The worst possible use of this quote is to self-certify one’s own ego with “Great One” status. That is especially true if its acting as a substitute for “trust me.” For example: “Gretzky said to skate where the puck is going, so our new product clearly places us there.”
Where the quote does have value, is in the simple observation that the puck is indeed going from one place and to another. There’s no opportunity hanging around where it just was, but there’s big opportunity in being where it’s about to be (which again, is REALLY hard).
The good news is that if we accept we’re not “The Great One,” we can still avoid being “The Not Great One.” If we just look around, scan for where things are moving and in what direction, we can keep ourselves in play. Not losing is a form of winning. Modified example: “Gretzky said to skate where the puck is going. We did that once, and that’s why we’ve been successful where we’ve been. My friends, it’s time to move again.”
If we take the ego and the destiny aspect out, we get to the heart of the quote: to play the game well, stay aware of the other players, and move opportunistically.
The real value in skating where the puck is going is not just to pick the right future, but to be aware that things are in a constant state of change.
That means we have to be in a constant state of adaptation.
The telephone, then the internet, then (real) mobile phones, then smartphones, then x(???); every one of these had its own “Great One.” Telephone (Bell), internet (AOL), mobile phones (Blackberry), smartphones (Apple), etc. We can easily recognize them in hindsight. In real time, it’s much harder.
In real time, every future “Great One” has a surrounding team of “Better than The Not Great Ones.” They embody winning by not losing. There were the engineers at Bell Labs, the internet service providers who ultimately changed the advertising industry, the mobile phone app developers, etc. Let’s not leave out the successful early adopters and users of these technologies either. At a minimum, these are the ones it makes sense to strive to be like as a baseline. We want to be like the players that are really in the game, even if we’re not the star.
Here’s a rule of thumb: don’t follow anyone who’s just standing still (at least non-strategically). To the kid chasing butterflies in the Little League outfield – you’re “The Not Great One” for at least this game. Lots of businesses and leaders fall into this trap and get distracted by the outfield butterflies. Make it a rule and don’t follow them.
Instead, do follow the action. If you just so happen to be the lucky one who spots a break, take a chance. Maybe, just maybe, you can end up where the puck is going once in a while. That’s at least good enough to not lose.