In an ideas-based business ecosystem, staying ahead of competition isn’t just an advantage; it’s a matter of survival. But for nearly two decades, the answer to the innovation puzzle has consistently been ‘brainstorming’, an open group discussion of ideas that may or may not work. As much as brainstorming can be a useful launchpad for business ideas, psychologists warn that groupthink may cloud the judgement of decision makers to keep doing what they think would work, rather than adapting with what their clients need.
“It’s really important to listen very carefully to what your clients want. All too often, entrepreneurs and also large organisations have a tendency to believe what they think the client wants. So they merrily churn away at the handle, delivering what they think is a great product. If they actually listen, and take feedback on board, they can meet their clients’ needs better. It’s not always easy to do that,” says Chris Paton, founder and MD of Quirk Solutions.
His business delivers workshops in wargaming, a military exercise famously used to plan for all eventualities, and making sure it’s highly productive and focused in a short time.
Wargaming is essentially a pressure test, and used in a business context, allows companies to plan strategies in advance of taking any action. “The stakes are so high in a military environment. W have to give it as much thought as we can as to how an operation might pan out,” says Paton. As a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines and former advisor to Cabinet and the National Security Council, he developed the idea after putting pen to paper in response to an article.
“I was a lead strategy officer at the Ministry of Defence, where I was putting together plans of getting everybody out of Afghanistan. We used the concept of wargaming to test our plans, to make sure they were as robust as possible. At that point in time, a friend of mine, who is a lecturer at Cranfield University sent me an article on how to plan in a fluid and uncertain environment.
I wrote back a response on how I’d go about it, which he got published in the Harvard Business Review. People started getting in touch with me on giving talks at their organisations on this way of strategising,” says Paton.
After working with the likes of Heineken, Standard Life Investments, and Bupa, Paton realised that there was a strong opportunity in the corporate world for his expertise. “My military career has been fascinating and great fun, but the idea of helping others through consultancy was very exciting. Taking wargaming from a military context and putting that into a business context meant encouraging businesses to come in, bring in their ideas and plans, and put it under pressure and scrutiny; the same pressure that the military has before they take any action, to increase their foresight and ensure they don’t waste resource.”
Waitrose recently announced its partnership with Quirk Solutions, renewing a previous 12-month contract with the company for its business workshops. Quirk has previously worked with Shell, NHS and smaller businesses, says Paton. “We’re not sector specialists. We can deliver at any scale in any sector. We do a lot of whiteboarding to think of all of the different potential outcomes of any decision, from customers, competitors, joint venture partners, investors, and all the people affected.The idea also includes bringing in external experts to break up groupthink. We recruit people to play those roles to challenge how the organisation has been approaching certain issues all along.”
Paton’s team has worked with a number of large corporates on issues such as strategy planning, conflict resolution, and post M&A culture assimilation, using the same 360 degree approach that wargaming affords. He believes it’s all about recreating the sense of pressure and focus of a military environment.
For Paton, his career trajectory has seen him move from a strategy, policy and planning role at an national and international level, to doing pretty much the same in a corporate environment. Still, his entrepreneurial journey has taught him a few lessons, he says.
“Firstly, things take time; a lot longer than you’d anticipate. You need to be prepared and resourced to have that time. If you go in and overstretch yourself at the start, you’ll find out very quickly you’re going to run out of money. To build the reputation and credibility of your business, you will need time,” he says.
“Throwing multiple options at a potential issue to see which one sticks isn’t the best way to grow your business,” he adds. “That’s why a lot of start-ups fail. They don’t know what will work so they’ll try four or five different things to see what’ll work, but the majority of those ideas won’t work, and will cost them a lot. It’s crucial to only put time and effort into that one thing that works.”
Paton self-financed Quirk Solutions when he started up in 2010, and all the growth since then has happened organically. “I made that decision to make sure that the people working within the company can benefit from its success, rather than external investors. It’s given me an opportunity to give equity to the team.”
The team in question is made up of 10 employees, a mixture of people delivering the workshops and the people who run marketing, PR and logistics, he says. Quirk Solutions isn’t above using its own wargaming techniques to challenge its decisions. “We had a session yesterday, actually. We were effectively wargaming on ourselves, so we brought in external people to help us,” Paton adds.
Quirk Solutions is on a self-funded growth path, with Paton’s plans to work even more closely with some of his large corporate clients. “The next step for us to help them develop (wargaming) as an independent capability for themselves. We’re very attracted by that and think it’s a very positive step for them to be independent of us. It’s great next step for us because it means those organisations see this as a really valuable tool and really want to invest in it. We’ll be doing that under a licensing agreement, and staying true to our principles of helping people, will make sure what they’re doing is of the highest quality.”
Ultimately, wargaming for Paton is all about forcing yourself into a situation outside of your comfort zone, allowing yourself to be challenged, and having the courage to face unpalatable truths, Paton concludes. “That’s the approach that will help (businesses) the most, rather than writing a plan and hoping it’ll work. All plans and strategies are going to go wrong. The key thing is to know when it’ll go wrong and how to respond.”