COE Summit Keynote Speaker Angus Fletcher: 5 Ways to Achieve Topline Growth in Uncertain Times

The following blog post is guest-authored by Angus Fletcher, who will be delivering a keynote address at the 2022 COE Summit

Angus Fletcher is Professor of Story Science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative. His research into courage and creativity has been called “life-changing” by Brene Brown and “mind-blowing” by Malcolm Gladwell, and he is currently working with teams in the US military’s special operations community and faculty at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to crack more of the secrets of creative leadership and courageous organizations.

When the world is stable and predictable, topline growth has a straightforward recipe: data, data, data. Data identifies external opportunities. Data assesses operations, improving sales efficiency. Data automates the day-to-day, freeing you to turn your focus to innovation and acquisitions.

But how do you achieve topline growth when the world turns volatile? In those times of twist and turmoil, data stops being abundant and reliable—and becomes increasingly expensive and fragile. Your spreadsheets yawn half-empty. Your decision-making protocols haze with ambiguity. Your confident momentum stalls, replaced by doubt and hesitation as the murk of your environment seeps through every sector of your operation.

When this happens, you have two options:

One, you can sit there passively, hoping that the mists will clear and the data you need will suddenly materialize.

Or two, you can shift your thinking. You can recognize that your competitors are all dealing with the same volatility, gifting you the opportunity to gain market share by reacting faster. You can remind yourself that uncertain times are why leaders exist in the first place, because leaders possess the courage and the vision to guide organizations ahead when no checklist, flowchart, or analytic holds the answers. And you can embrace the deep truth that the surest way to predict the future is to make the future, so that instead of fearing the unknown, you seek it as an open horizon in which to drive tomorrow forward.

The first option is, of course, the easier. Just purchase a turtle and imitate its behavior. But the second option is the key to growth. And challenging as it can feel to run forward with no map into the starless night, every organization can train themselves to do it. The proof lies in US Special Operations, which has spent the past seventy years researching how to build teams that get smarter in uncertainty and stronger in chaos. Those teams have learned the secrets for not only maintaining but increasing performance in turbulent situations, when fog and friction overtake the comfortable certainties of routine operations.

If you’d like a little of that performance boost to carry you through the next intel blip or environmental chop you encounter, here are five ways to achieve topline growth in uncertain times, drawn from brand-new research on US Special Operations—and field tested by our team in Fortune 50 c-suites.

  1. Get imaginative with the data you have. Instead of waiting for more evidence to converge upon a statistically-reliable plan, identify an anomalous datapoint and use it to envision an unprecedented course of action. So, if one of your customers is different from any previous customer you’ve seen, don’t do what an algorithm would do: reject the customer as an exception to be regressed to the mean. Instead, take a moment to imagine: What new market opportunities would emerge if there were more customers like this outlier? How could I proactively find—or create—those customers? (Sure, sure: imagination is for day-dreamers not hardnosed leaders. But tell that to Joint Special Ops Task Force 714.)
  2. Stop waiting for the optimum answer. Instead, dare to venture a good-enough guess. How to identify what’s good enough? Ask yourself: Can I pilot this guess quickly? If you can, don’t pilot it just yet! Take the time to draft a second good-enough guess. Then, test both guesses simultaneously, comparing which one gains more traction. This double-hypothesis method dramatically increases your odds of success. Which is why US Army Rangers always jump with two plans.
  3. Invest in emotional resilience. Emotional resilience is the psychological foundation of creative management. (Yes, you heard that right: the most transformative leaders start by strengthening their hearts.) The more effectively you want to lead your team through future-shock, the more time you’ll want to dedicate to nurturing your empathy, your mental health, and the rest of your emotional core. So, train yourself to do like the Army Nurse Corps: reframe failures as opportunities; fast-process setbacks with active gratitude; and combat burnout by ensuring that you’re driving your schedule—instead of the other way around.
  4. Exit your perspective. Effective managers spend about fifty percent of their time thinking like the people they manage. And effective leaders spend about fifty percent of their time thinking like their customers and competitors. Add up those two percentages and the numbers reveal: the best way to grow your organization is to spend almost all your time outside yourself. Think consistently with that level of selfless vigilance and you’ll unlock the team-building, terrain-taking mindset of the Marine Raiders at MARSOC.
  5. Decentralize decision-making. Giving more autonomy to the people you manage increases their emotional resilience and improves your organization’s response time, allowing you to react more quickly to the unpredictable challenges and opportunities that manifest beyond the edge of data. Most leaders know this and yet fail to act on it. Why? Because handing over control requires a conscious act of courage, and courage ain’t easy. That’s the hard truth, but here’s the true hope: courage builds with practice. So, take some time today to intentionally empower your workforce. Grant each of your team members total autonomy over a project larger than any they’ve run before. Do the brave thing and discover why the original special forces motto is: Who Dares, Wins.


The COE Summit, hosted by The Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence, offers an opportunity to get your cross-functional teams in front of the latest best practices in leadership and problem-solving. With 4 dynamic keynotes, 10 diverse breakout sessions, engaging entertainment, and multiple opportunities to connect with peers, speakers, and sponsors, the COE Summit offers a low-cost, high-value opportunity to hit “pause” on your team’s frenzied schedule to take a look at operational excellence through a new lens.

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COE 2022 Summit "OpEx Through a New Lens"


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