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.

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