From Agility to Strategic Agility: The Broken Cup Paradigm

As companies struggle to cope with turbulent change in business environments, they follow one of two paradigms, which I call the “Bear and Hikers Paradigm” and the “Broken Cup Paradigm.”

The Bear and Hikers Paradigm

The Bear and Hikers Paradigm comes from a popular joke that circulates on the internet. As the joke goes, two hikers are crossing a large grassy plain, when they spot a bear in the distance charging toward them. The hikers realize that the only option is to run. As soon as they begin to run, one of the hikers stops, opens his backpack, and starts to change from his hiking boots into the running shoes that he has pulled out of the bag. His bewildered friend exclaims, “Don’t you realize you can’t outrun the bear?” He replies, “I don’t need to outrun the bear. I need to outrun you.”

While the punch line takes us by surprise and makes us laugh, we realize that the hiker is willing to sacrifice a friend without hesitation; he has no consideration beyond the immediate circumstances, leave alone any thought of the friend surviving and spreading the word about the hiker’s selfishness. This is a paradigm that attracts many companies as they deal with rapid change. For such companies, agility is all about expedient, fast action that does not bother with long-term thinking.

The Broken Cup Paradigm

But there is another model for companies to follow when dealing with rapid and unpredictable change: the Broken Cup Paradigm. This comes from a true story that two researchers, Nicholas Burbules and Paul Smeyers, heard from a woman in her sixties. The woman was elaborating on the reasons for her success in managing a large kitchen in Chicago.

The Broken Cup story is as follows: As a little girl, the woman was helping her mother wash the dishes in the kitchen. Suddenly, a cup slipped from her hand, fell to the floor and smashed into pieces. “Without hesitation,” said the daughter as she recalled the incident more than 60 years later, and before she could even cry, the mother picked up another cup, threw it to the ground, and said, “See? It doesn’t matter.”

This is a simple story that is a part of everyday life. What does it illustrate, though? Most apparently, of course, the story is about how the mother reassures the child that material things do not matter and that all of us make mistakes. Beyond that we can also argue that the mother’s action conveys she is not angry with the child. At a deeper level, however, this story is about handling failure—specifically about how to handle somebody else’s failure.

More generally, it is about how one handles unforeseen, unpredictable events in life, and how we can use such events to create moments of learning. Considering that the daughter was recounting the story 60 years later, it is clear that the experience had formed a “lesson” that has stayed with her for decades. The Broken Cup Paradigm helps companies to think about long-term impact while being expeditious in the short term, and to move from simple agility to “strategic agility”.

To be truly agile, every leader and every company should use the broken cup model.

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