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Are You In A Front Foot Organisation (FFO)?

It strikes us that there are fundamentally two kinds of organisations to work in - those which are "on the front foot" and those which are "on the back foot".

I think you'll know what these phrases mean - most people do when we mention them - though their origins are not that clear. They may be taken from fencing or combat sports (boxing perhaps), where being on the front foot has connotations of being on the attack, moving forward.

Being on the back foot implies you stepping away from your opponent, pushed towards the ropes. Or they may come from cricket. When a batsman can get onto the front foot because the bowler is slow or the pitch is easy to play on, he can generally score shots more easily. Someone bowling fast at 90mph and bouncing the ball towards your head generally gets you onto the back foot.

We first started writing about the importance of getting onto the front foot in December 2008. Stepping forward as positively as possible to shape your situation is even more important now than it was then.

At times like this, the pressure on individuals and teams can become intense. It’s easy to feel on the back foot - reacting to circumstances and not fully in control.

Inspired by the learning from our work of the last four years, here are the things we suggest to get you and your team more onto the front foot.



  • Be clear on your priorities. It’s amazing how what start out as your core purposes soon get expanded and added to. More aims and objectives get added. Your offers to customers broaden, as does the base of customers you try to serve. Stop and check – what are our main priorities? What is imperative to us and what is more marginal? What must we achieve over the next 6-12 months? With a clear direction, you know which way is forward!
  • Keep repeating them. Once you’re clear on your priorities, don’t assume everyone else is too. Even in a management team, it is critical to keep restating the direction, re-emphasising what is important. That clarity on where you want to get to will free up time from fire-fighting and discussing distracting issues to allowing you to channel energy and attention onto the things that absolutely have to get done.


  • Invest in what works. It’s much easier to build on things that are already going well or are showing potential than things which are difficult or showing resistance. To get a sense of momentum, put some more resources behind people, teams, products or programmes which are delivering. They will build everyone’s confidence and hopefully spin off ideas for how to succeed in areas that are struggling.
  • Celebrate success. Even in good times, organisations can forget to celebrate what they achieve. Don’t just look forward to the next milestone, deadline or launch. Draw attention to the successes, make a fuss over those who have achieved results and be seen to value things going well rather than getting a reputation for dwelling on mistakes or failures. We all need to feel appreciated.


  • Manage knowledge. One of the things that slows us down is the sense that we are constantly reinventing the wheel. It’s hard to get onto the front foot if you always have to start a project from what seems like scratch – when there are almost certainly colleagues with knowledge to help. There are lots of things you can do quickly and cheaply to tap into the huge well of insight and information in the organisation. Two things to try straight away: a Peer Assist at the start of every bit of work and an After Action Review at the end.
  • Make the most of meetings. People spend a lot of times in meetings. Are they a drain on enthusiasm or a way of getting people moving? Do they create more issues or problems than they solve? How many breakthroughs on critical questions do your meetings generate? Great meetings should be the oil that allows the engine to roar into life. (Read on below for our offer to help with this.)


  • Work / not work. The answer to today’s challenges is not more time spent at work (or working). Finding inspiration for how to get things done more effectively and efficiently needs people with energy and breadth of perspective – and that needs space away from work. More than ever, managing a great team means helping individuals get that balance right.
  • Think – Plan – Do – Reflect. That’s the learning cycle. Regularly getting all the way round and giving enough attention to each stage will give you the insights you need to be confident you can succeed.

Which type of organisation are you in? One on the front foot - proactive, spotting opportunities, celebrating success, hopeful, encouraging each other, confident with customers, staff and stakeholders? Or on the back foot - reactive, worried about failure, spotting problems, under attack, lacking confidence, not getting on with each other?

In our experience, it's almost certainly more fun and fulfilling to work in a FFO (front foot organisation).

Let us know if you disagree!

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