The Zone of Opportunity

Croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop. I never really ‘got’ (or liked) the sporting analogies many people use in their business vocabulary. But coaching has emerged as an important common ground, since hitting the relevant ‘zone’ helps participants identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes.

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Playing croquet for the last six years or so has been an extremely interesting and instructive journey.    I slowly whittled down my handicap as the necessities and interruptions of full-time work allowed, and now a major re-invention project is to play more competition croquet.

As it happened, shortly after taking up croquet, I did an intensive leadership development course, which included a number of residential sessions at the Mt Eliza campus of University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School. That was a pretty special place – it was apparently sold in 2016 to a retirement village operator, which feels a bit like the end of an era. It boasted a vineyard, private beach access, 95-bedroom accommodation, conference and training facilities and four dining facilities.  The course was a memorable experience, engaged in intensive cohort learning with a number of my colleagues.

The thing is, croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop.  The Mt Eliza experience and focus on complex adaptive systems thinking provided many tools and insights to inform and energise that observation.  Croquet provided a valuable additional case study over the nine month duration of the course, and in subsequent reflection and use of that training.

One such tool was the notion of ‘double loop learning’.  Essentially the concept is that as well as learning the simple linear skill, you also observe and think about how the learning itself is happening, and make adaptive changes to that process as is useful.  The idea is well explained in the classic article by Chris Argyris, ‘Teaching Smart People How to Learn’. I have found this useful and important both in management and in my chosen game; because as a manager often the challenge is guiding your best people to be even better, and because croquet tends to be a game that attracts smart people.

Until I actually played a competitive sport I never really ‘got’ the sporting analogies many people are fond of employing in their business vocabulary.  I observed that these analogies often created in- and out-groups, appeared to discouraged diversity and often favoured male values. One of the attractive things for me about croquet is that by and large it is gender-neutral, with men and women playing on equal terms.  It is also very age-inclusive.

Without abandoning those observations, I have found a greater ability to relate to appropriate sporting insights, properly delivered.  In particular coaching emerges as an important common ground.

A couple of months ago I completed a Croquet Australia coaching course and as a result was endorsed as a Foundation Coach (level 1) for the three codes of Association, Ricochet and Golf croquet – I even got a badge!

20170725_084101-01I found many points of resonance between the material we covered and my management practice and learning over many years, some of which may unpack into future blogs … I don’t pretend to be anything but a fledgling sporting coach, but I am an expert generalist manager.

One notion I picked up on in particular was the ‘Zone of Opportunity’, which forms the title for this blog.  In croquet it has a highly technical application, but it resonates much more widely for me. It fits snugly into the complex adaptive thinking body of thought, exemplified in the sapling that clings to its opportunistic niche in the feature image.

20170707_114147-01

To the technicality – if your croquet ball is much more than 30 degrees off the centre-line of the hoop you are attempting to run, it is simply not possible for it to be hit through.  Skill and practice can shade the edge of the zone, but clearly it materially improves your chances if your approach shot lands you comfortably within the zone.

Single-loop learning might focus on practicing how to run difficult angles, while double-loop thinking might suggest practicing approaches that consistently land well within the zone as more fruitful.

20170725_085117So the more general use of the term is the coaching necessity to help anybody you are helping to develop, in whatever field of endeavour, to best apply their abilities to solve the skill-related problem, as it is relevant to them.  Finding and exploiting their zone will help them identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes. Obviously this should not simply be a matter finding a ‘comfort zone’ and sensible coaching sets a path of achievable development to levels of greater performance.

This references another use of the word ‘zone’, where players often referred to ‘being in the zone’.  A psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the word Flow to describe this feeling.  In essence, flow is characterized by achieving complete absorption in what you are doing and thereby of losing all track of time and sense of your surroundings.  Flow is broadly defined by a balance between ability and challenge, when your abilities match the specific challenge you can enter the flow state: croquet players as they build their break, craftsmen when they employ their skills, artists when they paint, writers when they craft their words.

In fact, in a double-loop style observation, this is essentially why I write this blog – as I write, time flies, my skills develop and I have fun: what more reward can anyone sensibly seek in life?

 

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