The quote from writer, William Gibson, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” always makes me pause.
For anyone leading a business and engaging in setting strategy, Gibson’s perspective should be imprinted on your frontal lobe.
The practical application of the statement is the disruption your firm is facing will likely come from something or someone or some ability that already exists. The question is, will you or your team see it in time and be able to respond outside the boundaries of your current approaches?
Seeing Around Corners by Becoming Discovery-Driven
I’m enjoying reading Rita McGrath’s new book, Seeing Around Corners—How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen. It’s filled with tools and ideas to help us do what the title says—identify those changes that will impact us long before the signal drowns out the noise and everyone sees them. The book is a must-read/keep for organizational leaders, strategists, product managers and everyone who engages in the work of identifying opportunities for their firms. (Ideally, that is in fact, everyone…not just some people.)
In one segment suggesting the need to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset, McGrath offers, “The key is being discovery-driven. Stop pretending you know all the answers. In a highly uncertain and fluid environment, neither you nor anybody else has answers. Arguing about being right or having a detailed plan going eighteen months out is just wasting your breath. Instead, articulate and pinpoint major uncertainties and how you might gain some insight into them.”
The View from the Conference Room Window Never Changes
In virtually every organization I encounter, management, product types, and marketers of all sizes and shapes are laser-focused on their business. They attend industry events, read industry blogs and publications, and hang out with people in the industry. And then they plan—typically based on a view that the future will resemble the shape of the past and everything they do must be a function of what they’ve done.
Effectively, they forge their future on roadmaps and in spreadsheets, by all looking out the same conference room window at what they know. While the colors change a bit as the seasons progress, the view fundamentally never shifts.
Meanwhile, the disruption that is going to upset those roadmaps, spreadsheets, and assumptions of more-of-the-same is gaining critical mass somewhere else outside of the view from the window.
And by the time everyone sees it, it’s too late.
My Untoward Reaction to a Three-Year Plan
I learned from a great teacher (Mom) to mind my manners, however, I’m human and I occasionally slip.
One of those occurred just a couple of years ago when a firm I was engaged with attempted to involve me in a spreadsheet exercise predicting software and data license revenues month by month for thirty-six months.
When presented with this task, I laughed so hard tears rolled down my face. Seriously, the idea of that insanity generated a bonafide belly laugh, which is hard to find in most workplaces.
It wasn’t my best moment and Mom likely would have given me the look. As a kid, it would have earned a slap.
To the defense of the individuals in this vignette, the parent corporation of this software firm striving to reinvent was in the hardware business where there was a high-degree of predictability surrounding the useful life, depreciation, and replacement of the equipment.There was some basis for their hardware focused planning. However, the attempt to impose that discipline (with a straight face) on an entity living in a world of technology disruption, innovation, and advancement was profoundly naïve. It was as McGrath suggests, “A waste of breath.”
You Must Change the View
In my “Think Differently” keynote offering ideas for managers to help themselves and their teams look at the world through different filters, my favorite example is a product manager who knew the firm’s roadmap for investments was a fast-pass to obsolescence. Instead of proselytizing to management that the sky was soon to fall, she used the resources at her disposal—the product team and her travel budget. She practically pushed her team members into markets and events far away from their industry space.
Acting as anthropologists, they first observed, and then shifted to an entrepreneurial mindset driven by the question, “How might this create new opportunities for us and our customers?”
Thanks to the fresh view and the adept internal maneuvering of this product manager, the firm identified new segments, new partnerships, and what turned out to be an important acquisition target. (Don’t discount the need for view-changers to draw upon influence and a bit of judo-like action to gain traction for divergent activities. There are always ample naysayers and blockers that must be overcome.)
Effectively, by changing the view, she changed the face and trajectory of the firm.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I described one way—analogical thinking—to help change the view. Rita McGrath’s book offers a great number of tools and approaches along with a treasure trove of examples. Whatever phrasing works for you, seeing around corners, seeing over the horizon, or thinking differently, it’s imperative to foster a discovery driven culture. Ditch the three-year month by month plan and open your eyes to the possibilities.