When it comes to mastering a strategy to deal with the unexpected, you could do far worse than to learn in 2017 how to perform a ‘reverse ferret.’

That’s the mildly comical term used in the national media – renowned for its darkly cynical gallows humour – to describe how to swiftly alter course when circumstances dictate an immediate change of direction is required.

It also exemplifies an agile fleetness of foot from which business could learn some valuable lessons when navigating the challenges of the year ahead.
For 2017 is shaping up to be a year when the ability to deal with the unexpected is set to become a vital core competence.

The automotive industry plans long ahead with the development cycle of a car around five years and narrowing. The challenges for manufacturers and suppliers now extend into how vehicles are owned and used, including future mobility solutions for cars that are connected and increasingly autonomous. These advances in technology disrupt existing proven and tested development processes. So it requires the sharpest minds to bring in new ideas and learning from other sectors outside the world of automotive, speeding the time to market.

The ‘winner takes all’ nature of modern business means those who don’t keep up will be forced to step aside and make way for unexpected disruptive challengers who are already moving into the arena. Who would have thought a few years ago that Google would move into cars, with Apple and even Dyson being touted as potential new entrants to the market?

It’s worth looking across at the national news media who live in the eye of the technology storm, albeit with much tighter deadlines – with the life-cycle of a daily newspaper just 24 hours and the online versions operating essentially in real-time.

News, like life, never stands still and can be wholly unpredictable and unexpected. Indeed that might almost define it. Fleet Street’s tongue-in-cheek ‘reverse ferret’ describes how to react when a ‘breaking news’ tale that looks to be heading predictably down one route, suddenly and unexpectedly does a 180-degree hand-brake u-turn.

The ‘reverse ferret is so-named after the furry animal which, heading down a pipe or trouser leg, suddenly has to turn-tail and head in the opposite direction.
That’s when the alleged murderer everyone thought was a dead cert to be found guilty is unexpectedly acquitted. The political party everyone thought would win the election loses. The high-flyer everyone had tipped for super-stardom is suddenly found to have feet of clay. How to cope with these tales of the unexpected?

As we enter a shiny New Year full of excitement, promise, potential and, let’s face it squarely, a large dollop of uncertainty, the ability to ‘reverse ferret’ is not a bad skill to carry across into wider industry.

For between wiping away the last crumbs of Christmas pudding, mince pies and turkey and linking up for a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, many will be considering their New Year resolutions – the promises we make and hope to keep for the 12 months ahead.

But perhaps, instead of resolutions, we should instead be thinking more about our New Year resolve – that bit of inner grit we all need to keep heading in the right direction for the next 12 months and beyond, and also to deal with those tales of the unexpected with their stings and twists in the tail.

People talk a lot about ‘managing change’. But this irritates me. Managing change is now the new norm – it’s simply business as usual. The world is in a constant state of flux. Get used to it.
And let’s be honest. Is life really any more uncertain than it has ever been? The world has not stopped turning. What we should be resolving to do – in business and in our personal lives – is preparing ourselves better to deal with the unexpected.

As an employer looking at my team, I should be asking myself: have I got the right mix of abilities and skill sets I need to cope with and manage any unexpected challenges ahead? Do they think on their feet? Are they nimble? If there is a sudden and unexpected issue that needs resolving now, who in my team could I confidently call upon to sort it out? Have I got the right tools and management programmes in place?
How do I want my organisation to be portrayed?

Am I already identifying, developing and retaining talent from within my own organisation? Or should I be seeking to recruit talent from outside to fill any obvious gaps? Have I identified those mercurial, flexible and fleet-of-foot ‘can-do’ individuals who have the necessary mind-set, emotional intuition and elusive X-Factor which can be nurtured? We’re talking here about the people agenda. People with the necessary resolve to make things happen. We are not talking about the stoppers and blockers who will find a reason NOT to do something.

Everyone is looking at costs so we have to work smarter as well as harder, and more flexibly on a tighter budget. That could mean recruitment packages that allow people to work three days in the office, not five. Or allowing the chief executive to take up other non-executive positions elsewhere to expand their knowledge and skills. Proper succession planning should have started already.

Employees too should be setting their own agendas and planning their careers three to five years ahead. They should increasingly become the masters of their own destinies and keep out of ruts – or risk having their futures being decided for them, for better or worse.

The people agenda is not just something to think about at New Year. It should be your continuous mantra throughout the year. Start training those ferrets.