It’s Your Career—Strengthening Your Perceptual Acuity

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas, guidance and inspiration for strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

In my first post in this series, The Importance of Exercising Your Core-4 Professional Muscle Groups, I suggested that much like your physical core muscles there are 4 major professional skill sets that serve an analogous and important purpose in your life. Your leadership skills, your perceptual acuity, your operational acuity and your professional presence are all core skills that provide stability and support in growth, change or difficult circumstances, and like your physical core, these require on-going development and strengthening. This post offers some starter-suggestions for strengthening your perceptual acuity.

The ability to see around corners or, see over the horizon, are two phrases that relate directly to the idea of perceptual acuity. While we’re barred by physical faculties from literally achieving those feats of optical gymnastics, as professionals, we are accountable for attempting to translate the external noise from our customers, our competitors, the new developments in technology and the many other forces propelling our world and our industries and then making decisions to either exploit opportunities or mitigate risks.

Those who do this successfully…great strategists, product managers, management teams, entrepreneurs and innovators of all kinds, strive to see patterns and opportunities where the rest of us might see randomness. The emerging new products or services, winning strategies with positions in new or under-served markets or, new ways of more efficiently delivering on long-standing tasks, are all outcomes of being able to translate noise in the environment into insights and then actions. Of course, it’s hard work and it’s easy to be wrong. Risky yes, but essential for our organizations and for us in our careers.

Perceptual Acuity in Action:

One of the best product managers I’ve yet worked with was tremendous at integrating the insights he gained from customer input and competitor moves to propose and bring to market hit products. He was our competitive advantage in large part due to his remarkable perceptual acuity. When he left, we replaced him, but we never replaced the value he brought to us and to our customers. We continued to develop products, but they were either innovations for innovation’s sake (driven by technology) or, me-too type offerings in response to competitors. We lost our mojo.

Many of the innovations in our world…from Best Buy’s Geek Squad to car-sharing services like ZipCar to innovations in old, tired industries such as shoe retailing (think: Zappos), were conceived because someone or some group translated changing social, technological or consumer circumstances into a solution that customers discovered was incredibly helpful.

On a more personal level, we all face the challenging reality that the functions we perform and the tools we use will change dramatically over time. Estimates suggest that my children will change careers up to 7 times during their professional lives. I’m on career number 3 or 4 depending upon how you define career change. Our ability to tune our perceptual acuity to imminent changes will allow us to prepare and be proactive about our career changes, versus the uncomfortable reactive approach that too many have opted for by default.

5 Exercises to Help You Begin Strengthening Your Perceptual Acuity:

1. Become a Social Anthropologist—Start Scanning:

In my first post in this series, I suggested a short assignment as preparation for this topic. I encouraged you to spend some time just glancing through publications that you do not ordinarily encounter. I kept the list down to a few…Fast Company, INC, HBR blogs…the Management Innovation Exchange website etc., and I encouraged you to simply look for firms doing interesting things with new products or services…or even their own management practices. Read, observe and note.

I read far and wide every single day…now subscribing to a wide variety and significant volume of publications (all digital for easy portability during air or train travel) and I find one or two fascinating ideas worthy of potentially considering or adapting to my own environment or to a clients situation with every round of reading. From business practices to ideas to improve teamwork, or areas where my firm’s offerings might apply in solving a problem, this scanning work is essential and highly productive…not to mention profitable for my firms.

John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing fame describes his habit of reading (or looking at) People Magazine as a means of tapping in to emerging social trends. And while you might not personally care who’s doing what to whom in Hollywood, John’s approach allows him to see emerging trends that he and his clients can connect to their own businesses. The insight gleaned in People might be a few degrees of separation from someone’s business, but remember, we’re looking for patterns in the noise. No one said there would be a map to winning new strategies or product innovations. (Remember, this is hard, creative work.)

Your Action: send your team off on an idea scavenger hunt in places different than your traditional stomping grounds of industry publications or tradeshows and challenge them to connect their observations to insights and possible actions.

2. Becoming a Social Anthropologist, Part 2: Observing:

One of the great habits of my very perceptive product manager described above was his approach to gaining customer insights. He was happy to talk with customers and ask questions, but most of his insights were gleaned from watching customers in their environment.

Our focus was on providing automation software and systems in production oriented retail environments (think: fast food) and this individual was incredibly insightful at translating the way people worked into ideas that could simplify and streamline processes, reduce costs and free-up labor to serve customers. He never would have gained the ideas for new products or systems simply by talking with clients.

Your Action: send your team out to your customers, but ensure that you gain ample time simply to observe. Again, you are looking for insights that translate to ideas and actions.

 3. Get Outside of the Jar:

My friend, Mike Maddock, Chairman of the innovation consulting firm, Maddock-Douglas, taught me to make certain to shift my view of the world from inside looking out. His constant reminder that you cannot see what’s on the label from inside the jar, has stimulated a wide-range of research work for my business, including calling upon experts of all varieties in dissimilar businesses who are dealing with or have solved similar challenges to those my firm is dealing with. While the feedback required a degree of analogic thinking and interpretation, the insights proved priceless.

Your Action: seek a trainer or practiced researcher for this one. (fyi, the team at Maddock Douglas is great at this.) Strive to identify individuals who deal with similar challenges but in very different industries. Let your researcher guide you through the process of gaining insights and feedback on how they view your problem and perhaps how they’ve solved it.

4. Starting Simple with Your Team—Use P.E.S.T.E.L.

This funny sounding acronym stands for: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal, and is a handy tool for teams taking their first steps in looking beyond their business and industry at what’s happening in the larger world that might impact them. One client leads the P.E.S.T.E.L. discussion with her team quarterly as part of their strategy review/refresh and asks the participants up to a month ahead of time to start scanning for trends and issues under each of those categories. During the live discussion, they review the items in detail and then focus very specifically on answering the question: What does this mean for us? (This is one of the most powerful, often unanswered questions you can introduce to your team.)

Your Action: introduce this simple technique into your team’s work. It doesn’t have to be part of a strategy process…it can simply serve as a tool to jump-start idea development.

5. Move Beyond Your Traditional Network(s) to Gain Insights:

Much like the theme of “getting out of the jar,” seeking opportunities to engage with professionals from very different industries (and cultures) is an excellent way to learn and to extend your thinking.

Theories of social networking suggest that the more diverse your networks are…and the better you are at connecting and engaging with these networks, the stronger you will be in gaining insights and access to know-how. Industry associations are important, but for this exercise, they’re less valuable than other professional settings. Ideally, you seek out groups where you can share issues and perceptions and have people do the same from their unique vantage points. CEOs do this frequently with networking groups that put them together with non-competitive CEOs…and the insights many report gleaning from these types of interactions are priceless.

Your Action: identify professional or networking organizations that are outside of your core industry and choose one or two to join. Ideally, search for a smaller group of professionals with similar challenges (e.g. product managers or marketing executives) or, a group of professionals who align around a desire to both give and gain (think: Mastermind group). Another action might be to enroll in an executive or professional education initiative where you come together with people from many different groups to focus on professional development. Remember to view these as opportunities to extend your network post session!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Strengthening your core professional skill of perceptual acuity is essential to helping you “see around corners” or “over the horizon” in your business and your career. Like physical exercise, it takes deliberate action. And much like physical exercise, it takes discipline to sustain the activity and leverage the outcomes. In a world where even change is changing, you must be looking, listening and translating the observations and insights by answering, “What does this mean for me/us?”

A great resource with a dedicated chapter on strengthening your perceptual acuity is Ram Charan’s, The Attacker’s Advantage.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

The Saturday Serial Number 1—Welcome to ACME John Anderson

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeThe Saturday Serial is an on-going management and leadership story and case based on a fictional firm and fictional characters all dealing with very real challenges in leadership and management. The intent is to stimulate thinking and discussion in a format different than the traditional “how to” blog post. Each episode includes a series of discussion questions for your consideration (or use with your team). I’ll share my views on the prior week’s chapter and questions in a subsequent post.

Episode 1:

The electronic sign in the lobby, offered up a friendly, Welcome to ACME CONSOLIDATED SOLUTIONS GROUP (ASCG). As John waited to check in with the receptionist, he was pleased to see his name scroll past: John Anderson, Manager, Product and Marketing. Nice touch, he thought as he stepped up and gave his name to the receptionist.

John was excited to be starting at ACSG today. This was his third employer in 14 years since graduating from college. While ACSG was a big conglomerate, John would be working with one of the smaller units…the Data Systems Solutions Group (DSSG)…an area that from all of his research, appeared to be an important part of the conglomerate’s future. During the interview process, John had been impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit he sensed in the people working in the Data Systems Solutions Group, and he liked the fact that he could help grow a start-up under the umbrella of a firm with deep pockets and diverse business interests. Also, John was mid-way through his MBA program and it didn’t hurt that the firm offered to pick up the future tuition costs as part of their generous employee education reimbursement policy.

All in all, John was excited to start this next chapter in his career.

After a quick greeting with his boss, Pat Paulsen, John was off to a whirlwind of meet and greet sessions. He met with security and had his picture taken for his permanent i.d. badge. HR took him through benefits sign-up and then Pat walked him around the Data Systems Solutions Group offices and introduced him to all of the unit’s 54 employees, including his new product management and marketing team members. After some time spent with I.T. setting up log-in credentials, it was 11:45 a.m. and John was scheduled for lunch with the unit’s six-month new CEO, Victoria Pyott. Victoria’s policy was to have lunch with every new employee regardless of level or title on their first day, and John was impressed with this thoughtful treatment.

Over lunch, Victoria outlined her view on the opportunities and challenges for the team in DSSG, and John was impressed with both her excitement about the unit’s prospects and her frank assessment of the challenges for the upcoming 18 months.

“We’re in a great arena,” offered Victoria. “The opportunity to help firms, teams and managers make better sense of their data is huge. All of us in all of our firms have spent years investing in systems to capture and access data, but we’ve still not resolved some of the fundamental issues…how to get the right data at the right time for the business problem or process issue we’re attempting to resolve. There’s all manner of software packages and tools to help clients do this, but by and large they’ve failed, because they’ve been expensive, complicated to install and integrate and frankly, very complicated to use. We can’t expect the finance or supply chain manager to be a software or even data expert…we have to create offerings that make their lives easier and that easily help them develop trusted, complete data on demand for the problem at hand,” she stated.

“Of course, like any firm motivated to grow and supported by a parent company that looks for results, not just promises in the future, we have to do a better job turning our ideas into solutions that we can monetize,” added Victoria. “That’s where you and your team come in, John. Thus far we’ve been led by the vision of our CTO, Raj Nataraj, and while he’s brilliant, he doesn’t have that knack for commercializing his vision. I’ve invested heavily in your team, and when your predecessor was grabbed by our parent company to lead another new initiative, we worked hard to find the right replacement. I think you’re absolutely the right person at the right time to lead this team and help lead this business into a successful future. It won’t be easy, but you have my support and the support of our entire management team.”

After returning to his office and sitting down with his manager, Pat, he relayed the lunch discussion and shared his over-the-top excitement with her.

“John, Victoria is right,” said Pat. “We’ve got a great opportunity and your role and your team is critical. But remember, no one said this would be a day at the beach. There are challenges ranging from the choice of markets and the development of the best entry strategies to critical product investment calls and challenging execution issues. We’re a young unit, but we’re big enough to need more process around our approach to daily operations…while at the same time insuring that we keep that entrepreneurial culture. And yes, I read once that these jobs would be easy if it weren’t for the people. It’s true here…there are a wide variety of personalities, all with different perspectives and all trying to help the firm grow and go. More than a few of them missed the memo on teamwork. You definitely have your work cut out for you, but I’m glad you’re here. And I’m thrilled to have your help and to offer my support,” she said.

“Now, are you prepared for your first team meeting?” asked Pat. “It’s in five minutes.”

While the morning’s raw enthusiasm was still there, John was beginning to understand the magnitude of the work out in front of him. He smiled, and said, “Absolutely. Just point the way to the conference room.”

Discussion Prompters:

  1. The initial meeting with a new team is one of the more challenging for any manager. What do you think is running through the minds of John’s new team members as they head to the conference room for this first meeting with their new boss?
  2. What are John’s objectives for this initial, formal group contact?
  3. What must John do and say to make a positive first impression?
  4. What must John avoid to minimize tarnishing that first impression?
  5. Help John get started on the right foot in the weeks ahead. What should John do in the early days of his new role as the head of Product Management and Marketing in the DSSG?

All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Introducing The Saturday Serial—An Ongoing Management & Leadership Case

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeA note from Art:

I’ve long believed serials are great ways to share stories. Dickens published many of his works in serial format and the dockworkers were reputed to shout from the shore as ships arrived with the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, “Did little Nell live?” The Golden Age of Science Fiction was filled with stories told one chapter at a time from issue-to-issue and today’s Game of Thrones novels from George R.R. Martin are an excellent example of the serial on steroids, with fans (myself included) waiting impatiently to learn the fate of our favorite characters and hoping that Mr. Martin finishes the story. Who lives? Who dies? Who conquers?

Serials provide readers an opportunity to become invested in a story and the characters, and I believe the approach provides authors an opportunity to think and then create new twists and new approaches to challenge the characters and further engage the readers. As a child and teen I was addicted to the Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries because I appreciated the characters and I loved the ability to try and solve the cases. I’ve added that twist here in the form of discussion questions and I look forward to sharing my ideas and learning how readers might solve these business cases.

Welcome to my intent and attempt to share and cultivate management and leadership lessons beyond the format of a stale blog post and endless lists of “10 ideas to… .” While I love writing the Management Excellence blog and the first 1,025 posts are testament to my commitment, I’ve wanted to experiment with the serial and management fable format here for a long time. I’m emboldened by the reader appreciation for the short, fictional cases around my mythical APEX Corporation, inserted in front of the chapters in my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership. Those mini-cases and their discussion questions and the author’s take on the cases have been a staple of this book and something many managers have leveraged to stimulate thinking around the issues we all face in growing as leaders. I’m grateful for the appreciation many of you have expressed for those cases.

Lencioni and Goldratt popularized the novelized or fable form of business lessons in their various writings and I understand that some of you love those and others don’t. For those who prefer their business and leadership lessons and questions with a taste of drama, The Saturday Serial is ideal for you.

Beginning with my first episode, “Welcome to ACME John Anderson,” you will meet a growing cast of characters facing a series of very real management, leadership and career challenges in this fictional high-tech, global conglomerate and its various units and divisions.

Yes, the issues are real. I see them every day and I’ve experienced and observed these dilemmas around strategy and execution and learning to lead and learning to manage in many flavors  for 30-years. And while the characters and firms are all fictional, I will wager a fair amount, you will recognize these issues and challenges…and many of you will be dealing with them in real time. Now, you get to see and hear them unfold here in this on-going series of stories and cases, and hopefully, we’ll all engage in sharing some ideas on how to navigate the challenges. After all, the intent of my work and this entire blog is to help those striving to grow their firms and grow in their careers find useful and creative ideas and answers to the vexing challenges we all face during our journeys.

Welcome to The Saturday Serial at Management Excellence I hope you’ll tune in and chime in as the story develops. After all, the beauty of this format is that you can help determine the outcomes. -Art

Check out Episode Number 1.

 All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Leadership Caffeine™—Breakaway Leadership Part 2

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

In the first post in this blended, Leadership Caffeine/Art of Managing series, I focused on leadership and management behaviors that stifle or derail efforts to escape the gravitational pull of the past as organizations work to achieve what Geoffrey Moore calls, Escape Velocity.

In the words of that business pundit, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” when it comes to building new on top of old (For those too young to have met Pogo, he was a popular newspaper cartoon character from another era.)

In this post, we look at behaviors and approaches that YOU and your management counterparts directly control that contribute to success with this challenging endeavor of building something new while managing the existing legacy business.

8 Ideas to Help Improve Your Odds of Success in Building the Future:

1. Create organizational awareness and understanding of the new endeavor. Every day. Seriously. I’m invoking Kotter’s dictate that, “in times of change, you cannot over-communicate.” Every time a firm’s senior leaders stop working at this, the cultural storm clouds emerge. Take care of it. Daily.

2. Position the new and legacy efforts as two equally critical but very different endeavors. It’s true. The existing business pays the bills and funds the future, while the new endeavor strives to ensure a future. One is no more critical than the other. They are both critical. Share the over-arching strategy (or opportunity) far and wide; create an understanding of how the firm will execute on the opportunity and share results, good and bad. Help the entire organization become invested in the success of the new endeavor!

3. Share the cool new toys! New endeavors often introduce new processes or approaches to innovation, development and market testing. Find opportunities to cross-train and cross-pollinate new approaches with legacy teams where appropriate. I’ve seen this most often in the move away from waterfall development to an agile approach. Frequently, all teams can benefit from understanding and learning to apply the new techniques.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms4. Recognize and manage the inertia of your legacy business in creating new opportunities to invest. Your product managers will naturally identify opportunities to improve existing products and introduce new offerings into legacy markets. Marketing associates will find ways to spend their budgets in pursuit of the business, and rarely do the volume of development asks or marketing opportunities shrink of their own accord.

Senior leaders must manage the incremental requests with a clear filter and a firm hand. See also points 1 & 2 and recognize that creating context for “No” on new requests is critical to avoiding a cultural rift over the team with the shiny new toys and the other team with yesterday’s retreads.

5. You get what you measure…use the right progress measures. Moore does a good job of reminding us in Escape Velocity that you cannot measure new ventures with the same metrics you apply to existing businesses. New ventures are about engaging innovators and early adopters, gaining feedback and step by step, increasing activities, pipelines and then dollars and profits. We expect our existing businesses to quickly translate activities into revenues and profits, but the new ventures have to grow into those measures.

In larger entities, particularly holding companies and conglomerates, there’s often little consideration for the meaning of the numbers in cells on a spreadsheet…it’s up to you and your peers to establish this understanding and ensure proper context for costs without revenue that occur in most new endeavors.

6. Be prepared for the “Stuff Happens” phase. I don’t care how well you define the project and anticipate risks, something always happens that the team did not anticipate. The unknown-unknowns bite hard, and it takes leadership to stand firm in the face of the onslaught of finger-pointing and second guessing, and prevail. A senior leadership divided against itself will not stand. (OK, sorry President Lincoln.) The firm’s senior leaders and the new venture’s executive sponsor must fight the knee-jerk reactions and guilty before proven innocent tendencies of others vying for resources.

7. We think, therefore we are prone to errors and traps. Be merciless about avoiding group-think, dodging escalation of commitment and side-stepping other group and individual cognitive decision-making traps. Use outside perspectives to challenge your strategy and your assumptions. Promote outside-in discussions with target audience feedback and competitor analysis. Ask others to frame your perceived opportunity in a different way and challenge them to identify alternative approaches. And importantly, cultivate the leadership team dynamics needed to ask hard questions about insights, direction and strategies.

8. Avoid starving the new endeavor. One of my favorite managers often intones, “We’ve been doing so much for so long with so little that we can now do absolutely anything with nothing.”  He always gets a laugh, but it’s no laughing matter when promising ideas die on the vine due to lack of care and feeding. If you’re making a courageous leap to push into a new arena, back it with the people, equipment, tools and organizational support needed to improve the odds of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This is a big topic contained in a couple of small posts. Many organizations never move beyond the business that made them successful. They are yesterday’s name brands and tomorrow’s answers to trivia questions. The effort required to add something new in an environment of existing (or old) is not to be trifled at. Use the ideas here and in post #1 as prompters and engage in the hard discussions and invoke the courageous leadership it takes to move beyond the gravitational pull of your firm’s past.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

A Great Product Manager

Someone asked me about the importance of product management in my prior tech businesses. My answer was blunt. Great product managers see beyond customer requirements to the often unspoken needs, and they move organizational mountains to fill those needs.

If you’ve ever worked around, for or with a great product manager, you know this to be true. I’ve worked with a few who live up to this lofty description. Without them, there would have been less success. Maybe no success.

For those of you who aspire to follow in their very big footsteps, you need to think bigger about your role…about your cause. Learn to lead across boundaries…quit staring at your competitors so much and climb into the businesses of your customers, until you can feel their stress and pain and see their opportunities. And then do something about it.

A great product manager is a difference maker.