Strike While The Iron Is Hot

I went to a blacksmiths festival recently. A bit out of the ordinary for my general weekend entertainment, to be honest, but talk about impressive. It’s incredible what can be done with a bit of heat. Even the hardest of metals can be reshaped into something new and beautiful under the right conditions.

Funnily enough, blacksmithing is the origin of the saying: “to strike while the iron is hot.” In the beginning, this was all about a blacksmith striking a horseshoe when the temperature of the metal was exactly right to take shape. If they waited too long, then the metal would get too cool and be difficult to shape.

In 2019, we’re more likely to use this as a metaphor – taking action early and seizing momentum while the conditions are right. We talk about “cooling off” too. With contracts, for example, we know we might feel differently about our commitments after our excitement wears off.

Cooling off happens inside teams too. Under the right conditions it’s possible to get people excited, create some heat and build momentum. Wait too long for action and things will harden, becoming difficult to shape.

I see this a lot when it comes to strategy days and communicating change. We go on away-days or run fancy roadshows, use screeds of post-it notes and promise people a new world. Three months later, the loop was never closed, there’s been no action, and people have cooled right off.

This is often where I’m called in, and it can be a tough environment. I’m working with people who’ve had their trust broken, who’ve hardened, and tend to fold their arms with a raised, cynical eyebrow at the idea of talking about strategy again.

I read a McKinsey report recently that less than half of our senior leaders are satisfied with the way we do strategic planning, and only 23% think that decisions made in that context will actually lead to action. Hardening and cynicism isn’t just inside our teams – it’s coming all the way from the top.

And who can blame us? Strategy execution rates are dismal – especially in the private sector. We don’t close the communication loop, we get stuck in a paperwork black hole somewhere between thinking and doing and implementation suffers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If action is going to take time, keeping people in the know, visibly valuing their contribution and providing opportunities to take small steps of their own will keep the heat alive.

There’s an extended version of our idiom which, like most quotes, is attributed to half a dozen potential thinkers throughout history, including Sprague, Hemingway, Cromwell and Yeats. One confirmed version, cited in a letter to a friend from Richard Sharp in 1806 states:

We must not only strike the iron while it is hot, but strike it till “it is made hot.”

I like this even better. As with blacksmithing, we can make and keep the iron hot ourselves. How? By striking. Seeing opportunities, pushing back on bureaucracy and taking continued, incremental action creates momentum and shows leadership.

It also makes my job in supporting your strategy rollout easier, so thanks in advance!

Are you striking while the iron is hot? What are your opportunities to keep striking?

Til next week