Tiny margins make all the difference - John Sturrock

It was probably no more than a couple of centimetres offline. Nevertheless, the disappointment was palpable. Tiger Woods’ putt on the 7th green in the first round of the recent Open Golf Championship slipped past the hole.

As part of the watching crowd, it was a privilege for me to see this sporting great for possibly one last time. But this moment was also a reminder of the narrow margins between success and failure. Indeed, a fellow spectator informed us that someone had calculated such a missed putt would cost several thousand pounds, increasing exponentially as the championship reached its later stages.

That same weekend, Scotland lost a rugby match (and a whole series) against Argentina in the final seconds of the game. Stuart Hogg, the resting Scotland captain, commented on television that “tiny margins are the difference between winning and losing a test match”. Tiny bits of skill execution had let the Scots down, he said.

That got me thinking about professional practice and the tiny bits of skill execution that make all the difference in our work. It is easy in a busy world to lose the discipline to attend to detail, to check the small print, to spend the extra time on preparation, to stop and pause for a second or two before responding to an email. And yet focus and precision are essential in most of what we do.

Tiger Woods misses a putt during the 150th Open at St Andrews Old Course in July, 2022. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It could be in expressing ourselves clearly and succinctly in a letter; that takes time and effort. Words attributed to Mark Twain come to mind: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” It could be in the formulation of a question in a client interview or in the court room examination of a witness.

Each word should be carefully chosen for its task, as was once said. Or in deciding whether to ask a question at all. I recall an occasion as junior counsel, when I was in practice at the Bar many years ago, on which I acted for a third party in a claim about an accident at work. I listened to the evidence led on behalf of the pursuer and defender. Having undertaken careful preparation regarding the case against the third party, I elected to ask only one question in the course of three or four days of evidence. There was no need to do more; to do so would only put the third party in jeopardy. Less was more and self-discipline was essential. To the consternation of the defender, the third party was absolved.

Silence is golden, as the song goes. Sometimes, saying nothing and just waiting and watching is the best plan. As a mediator, I remember sitting for what seemed like several minutes resisting the strong urge to intervene as the two commercial leads in a dispute made proposals and counter proposals to each other.

I could help most by staying quiet. Such inaction requires self-discipline and a keen awareness of the dynamics of the situation. Inaction is not always appropriate of course and often the role of the mediator is to ask the one question that nobody else feels able to ask. You have to assess what is best each time.

That takes me back to preparation, for which there is no substitute. I recall the extent of preparation carried out by some of the QCs to whom I had the privilege of being junior counsel in my early days at the Bar. Yes, they were often very intelligent people but what marked them out was the hours and hours of preparation, anticipating every possibility as one might in a game of chess.

The winner of the Open Golf Championship, Cameron Smith, was described as having a Zen-like mastery of his putting. The night before his sensational final round, he was apparently out on the practice green sending ball after ball towards the hole from different angles and lengths. That’s commitment.

And that’s what it takes. In a different context, a recent obituary of the renowned theatre director Peter Brook noted that, for him, “everything depended on rehearsals”. It won’t always work but, in the long run, practice and preparation creates the master.

Fine margins are everywhere. One word, one question, a moment’s pause. In your work this week, what might you do which will make the difference?

John Sturrock is CEO and Senior Mediator, Core Solutions

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