Disruption – and opportunity – is outside our field of view

Michael Canning’s guide to seeing around corners

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The marketplace is changing at a breathless rate. Amid the complexity and disruption, organizations and leaders need to ‘see around corners’ – pick up early warning signals of strategic inflection points.

This is the seminal teaching of management scholar Professor Rita Gunther McGrath. She defines strategic inflection points as changes in the operating environment that are caused by a combination of new technologies and emerging trends – brought about by a disruptive competitor. McGrath’s crucial insight is that an inflection point causes the long-time assumptions underpinning your business to no longer be true. 

Yet seeing around corners is unnatural for businesses, just as it is for individuals: the human eye evolved for a life hunting under the big skies of the savannah, not the labyrinthine corridors of today’s complex business environment. 

Like our own vision, most of our legacy strategy apparatus has been designed to see things within our industry. Picking up the peripheral slow-moving trends, emerging technologies or disruptive start-ups is not instinctive – it requires intentionality and practice. So, how do we get better at this new fundamental survival skill? In a recent conversation with McGrath, I asked how leaders can begin to see around corners. She shared five best practices. 

1 Be customer-obsessed

The customer-obsessed listen and interact with their customers carefully and are focused on creating a great experience. Disney, Ritz-Carlton, Amazon and Netflix consistently top the list of customer-obsessed companies. In addition to careful listening and responsiveness, each also uses technology to interact with their customers and gather real-time data to identify and satisfy emergent needs and solve new problems. The customer-obsessed know their customers are not merely a source of revenue, but also additional eyes to see around the next corner. 

2 Demand diverse perspectives

One of the greatest ways to create a blind spot is to be surrounded by people like yourself. Diversity brings many advantages to an organization, including increased profitability, creativity and better problem-solving. Employees with diverse backgrounds bring a broader set of perspectives to help challenge assumptions, and a rich set of networks that act as sensors in the periphery. 

3 Empower small teams

Form small teams that look at problems and are empowered to bring back information and decisions that drive action. Empower small teams and think about how you take the small steps that help you solve the bigger problem. Ask yourself whether you are giving people the permission and resources to explore the edge, placing small bets and running enough experiments from which we can learn faster. 

4 Get out of the building 

It is likely that the forces driving the next inflection point in your company are going to come from outside your industry. Are you positioning yourself to pick up the next trend, technology, or competitor outside your industry purview? Are you interacting with people closer to the edge? 

5 Lead your senior team out of their denial

The organizational guru Ron Ashkenas notes that great leaders tell it like it is. They focus on reality, no matter how unpleasant, and then figure out what to do about it. In contrast, less effective leaders sometimes avoid hard truths, argue with the data, and delay tough decisions. Denial is one of the most common defence mechanisms used to cope with difficult situations. And, it’s easier to see in others than in yourself. That’s why really good managers value subordinates and colleagues who are not afraid to tell them the truth. Are you building a team and culture where this is the norm? 

As the science fiction writer William Gibson said: “The future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed.” Position yourself closer to the places where what’s next has already arrived. 

––– Michael Canning is global managing director of innovation and new commercial models at Duke Corporate Education

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