Many years ago, while scuba diving in Dahab in the Sinai I watched as an octopus fought for its life. Perched on the side of an underwater cliff, this octopus was being attacked by half a dozen fish. These fish were working together to pull it off the wall and out into the open water where presumably they were going to tear it apart. Every time it looked like the fish were close to achieving their objective, the octopus would twist and reach out a tentacle to grab on to the coral. It kept moving, dodging and twisting, defying and frustrating the predators. And then it did something extraordinary; it went very still, changed colour, texture and shape until it not only resembled the surrounding coral, it became the coral. In this way, it managed to escape with its life as the fish lost track of it and moved on.
The octopus is an extraordinary animal. Sure, it’s smart, but so are many other creatures. What I think makes it exceptional is the way it is able to adapt to its surroundings, expanding and contracting, shifting in form to support the function demanded by the moment. It is the great chameleon, at once powerful and practically formless.
It brings to mind a timeless quote from Bruce Lee:
“Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash: Be water, my friend.”
The ability to be water is the defining skill for the digital strategist. Our industry is characterized by constant and rapid change. To succeed, indeed, to lead in this environment needs a remarkable level of adaptability. Our path is not the rigid one of our more doctrinaire colleagues. We are not the ones that say ‘that’s how we have always done it’. We need to be able to understand our surroundings, the circumstances we find ourselves in and adapt rapidly, moulding our message and delivery as necessary.
This is not an invitation to be all things to all people, to be without conviction. We are most effective when the authenticity of our delivery is matched by the authenticity of our beliefs. This is about taking a methodology or an ideology and asking how it applies to the situation we find ourselves in. Remember that the core concept at the heart of Darwinism is not survival of the fittest, but rather the survival of the fastest to adapt.
Water does not only adapt and give way. When forced to, it pushes through with relentless power. When external circumstances demand, and with the strength of conviction derived from experience and information, the strategist needs to be able to push the agenda forcefully, to take the lead, with all the responsibility that comes with it, preferably using the strength and momentum of whatever stands in the way of the objective against it.
Being water is not just about turbulence and change though. Water can also be calm, with impenetrable depths. With their central role in an organization or project, the strategist needs to exude a sense of calm at all times. When everyone around you is losing their minds, it is your job to maintain perspective, identify the path through the storm, and remain calm.
So be formless. Be shapeless. Adapt. Push when necessary. And Be calm. But above all, be water, my friend.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.