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How to think clearly under pressure

Strategy consulting projects can be very pressured environments. Often they are initiated because the firm is already under performing, facing a significant threat, or facing a time critical opportunity. Often the sponsoring executive may feel his/her career is at stake. Often the board and other senior stakeholders are paying critical attention.

And so it is important that a strategy consultant is able to function under pressure.

Being independent can a great asset in these circumstances. Not being personally invested in a situation can improve objectivity. Being an outsider can bring fresh insight.

However, even as an independent consultant, you are still committed to a successful outcome. Your ability to win future work depends on your past successes.

And so it is vital to be able to think clearly under pressure.

Pressure produces a physical response in the human body. Breathing changes, becoming shallower or stopping altogether (holding your breath). This triggers the brain to release the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which activate the fight, flight or freeze responses. The brain goes into reactive mode, leading you to become more critical and negative , and to take things more personally. We lose our ability to be imaginative, creative adaptive and open to others. Other people quickly perceive these changes in behaviour and respond accordingly. All of this is fatal for strategic thinking.

There are a number of things you can do to help yourself to perform better under pressure.

1. Prepare

Sir Clive Woodward, the Olympic Coach coined the acronym T-CUP, for Thinking Clearly Under Pressure. Sir Clive prepares by imagining everything that could happen, and then planning ahead what the response will be. While he says that athletes can be prepared with responses for each of these scenarios in a class-room environment, it is much better for them to learn through the actual experience of training and practice. This underscores the importance of experience for a strategy consultant. Book knowledge, whilst valuable, is not enough.

Next time you're preparing a pitch or presentation, take the time to imagine the kinds of responses you're hoping you won't get from your audience - then practice how you might respond to them in order to get your presentation back on track.

2. Learn to stay in the moment

However, no amount of scenario preparation will help, if, at the crucial moment you can't call it into practice. How many times have you heard someone say "I always think of the right response after it's too late"? In his book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", Steven Covey talks about the gap between stimulus and response. In stressful situation that gap can seem incredibly short. Our animal brain takes over producing the defensive, aggressive or passive responses described above. But it is possible to learn to recognise that gap and to regain control of your response. Techniques for doing this vary from the simple "counting to ten" technique to much more sophisticated meditation practices.

3. Learn to de-stress

No matter how good you get at dealing with pressure and stress, you will still experience it on a regular basis. And so it is important to have some way of de-stressing. I find running really helps me. It does not require a lot of though, beyond avoid traffic and lampposts, and even a relatively short 30-minute run usually provides more than enough space to clear my head. And, of course, the physical exercise helps the body to get rid of those stress hormones. When going for a run is not an option, even a quick walk around the block at lunch-time can help. But it doesn't need to be something as intensive as running. A wide range of activities could serve just as well. I'd suggest you look for anything you enjoy enough for it to absorb your whole mind, something that involves at least a little physical activity, and preferably something that gets you into a different and relaxing environment.

Make sure you've built time into your schedule for getting better at thinking clearly under pressure.

photo credit: NEIN! 183/365 via photopin (license)

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