Fan’s of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series may recognize the expression “Slip the Jab”. During the fifth sequel, Stallone’s character, Rocky Balboa, returns to his Philadelphia origins, and location of the gym willed to his son by his late trainer Mickey Goldmill. After entering the abandoned, dusty gym, Rocky is overcome with emotions as he flashes back to his gym training days with Mickey insisting “Slip the jab, Rock, slip the jab!”.
During this flashback, Mickey offers Rocky remarkably wise lessons on life. These lessons carry with them a curious applicability to knowledge work, which is the subject of this post.
1. “Slip the jab”
Mickey’s insistance that Rocky “slip the jab” refers to a common practice in boxing whereby a boxer learns avoid incoming punches, while also quickly regrouping in order to seize the vulnerability resulting from the missed punch.
A knowledge worker requires similar preemptive and reflexive abilities in order to look ahead, avoid oncoming industry, organizational, or career perils, while simultaneously positioning herself for success once the peril subsides.
“Slipping the jab” for a knowledge worker allows her to operate as the CEO of her professional life. To do so effectively, she should borrow from leadership models such as Peter Drucker’s Effective Executive, or career management techniques such as Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve.
“Mesmerize! See that bum in front of you, see yourself do right and you do right”. What a wise set of words from Mickey as he instructs Rocky to the benefits of looking ahead and envisioning the result during his shadow boxing session.
Effectiveness is wisdom, and wisdom requires prediction. What better way for a knowledge worker to boost his effectiveness than to envision the scenarios that may unfold in his project, while also imagining the best possible ways he can respond.
An example of this predictive component can be found in some software development practices. Consider test-driven development, whereby a programmer “envisions” his future implementation by first establishing the boundaries for success.
“The fact that you’re here and doing as well as your doing gives me the, what do they call it - motavisation – to continue on.” Here Mickey opens up with Rocky, revealing just how important his relationship with the promising young fighter truly is (while succumbing in his struggles to correctly pronounce the word).
Motivation has become a key lever in management’s quest to build high-performance knowledge worker teams. Daniel Pink’s Drive offers a simplistic but helpful understanding to the components of this Motivation, as does Fredrick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory.
But the real essence of a knowledge worker’s Motivation is implied in Mickey’s words. Think about it – Rocky’s career is doing well, Mickey is his trainer, and so he has every reason to believe he is being effective as a trainer. Effectiveness brings motivation as is the case with Mickey. A highly-motivated Mickey will only increase Rocky’s chance to be a successful boxer.
The same applies to knowledge work. Staying motivated requires an individual increase the chances her efforts will lead to the desired effect. Aligning work with strengths offers one such way for an individual, as does a strengths-based hiring approach for organizations.
4. “Nature’s smarter than people think”
“People die when they don’t want to live anymore, and nature is smarter than people think”.
Not only is nature smarter than people think, as Mickey suggests, but there’s a growing pervasiveness to incorporate the principles of Evolutionary theory and Complexity Science into management and engineering disciplines to prove it. Just look at the recent successes of adaptive approaches to management and software development, for example.
5. “Outside the ring”
Later in Rocky’s flashback, Mickey is heard saying “When I leave you, you’ll not only know how to fight but you’ll know how to take care of yourself outside the ring”.
The idea of improving not just one aspect of an individual’s life, but larger aspects is not unlike principles we see in software development and/or manufacturing. Consider, for example, the “See the whole” principle which is a cornerstone of Lean software development and Continuous improvement. In order for Rocky to remain a champion fighter for a long time, Mickey realizes he’ll need to ensure Rocky’s success outside the ring as well.
This fits the continuous improvement mantra. Sustaining and leveraging the improvements in knowledge worker processes requires improving their dependent aspects as well.
6. “Angel on your shoulders”
Finally, towards the end of Rocky’s flashback, Mickey is seen removing his most favorite possession, a cufflink given to him by Rocky Marciano. He offers this as a gift to Rocky suggesting it will serve as “an angel on your shoulders”, while also suggesting when Rocky feels himself going down “the little angel will scream at you saying: get up you son of a bitch cause Mickey loves you”.
Whether we’re talking about mentors, coaches, retrospectives or daily stand up meetings, to name a few, the key point is to establish necessary feedback channels in order to help individuals and teams adjust early and often.
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