The next time you arrive at the end of the roll of paper towels, instead of throwing the cardboard tube into the recycling bin, why not channel your inner kid? Put the tube up to your eye and use it as an imaginary telescope. Admit it, you did that as a kid. We all did. These tubes made excellent telescopes for spying on annoying siblings, and wrapping paper tubes were reserved exclusively for sword fights with these same characters.
The view through the tube is analogous to how many of us view our organizations, careers and industries. Too often, we’re laser-focused on the object in front of us: the next project, the next quarter or our annoying competitor. Because our field of view is severely constricted, we fail to see the bigger picture until something from outside our narrow worldview runs us over. It might be a disruptive competitor we scoffed at, or new technology that we never thought would stick. These unseen, unanticipated changes disrupt our organizations and derail our careers with remarkable indifference.
I see and hear the result of this monocular vision in my work all of the time. As a strategy consultant, I engage with clients who spend way too much time looking through the paper towel tube. As a coach, I’m frequently approached by individuals who wake up one day to discover that everything they were educated and trained for and were accustomed to doing no longer applies. These are more than sobering moments. For many, they are horrifying.
Standing still in this era—with our organizations, our strategies or our own careers—guarantees that we move backwards at the speed of change. On our own, none of us can stop the force of change, but we can do a better job scanning for trigger events and anticipating how they might impact us.
The first step in this process is to expand your field of view. Here are eight ideas to help with that.
1. Make external scanning part of your normal operating routine. It’s essential to get people on your team to regularly look at and talk about the world beyond your industry and customers. Encourage the team to look at new developments in other industries and geographies. Focus on identifying trigger events that have the potential to ripple through industries.
2. Jump-start scanning. Assign teams to visit conferences and trade shows in unrelated markets and look for the latest developments, innovative technologies or emerging business models.
3. Use association techniques to stimulate investigation and idea development. Observing how innovative firms and market leaders in other segments execute their business can serve as a source of ideas. Your goal isn’t to mimic those firms, but to identify approaches that you might adapt to your audiences to differentiate you from competitors. For example, ask yourself: “How would the Ritz-Carlton reinvent our customer service approach?” Or, “How would Amazon use our data to improve our marketing?”
4. Create a space to curate observations and foster idea generation. I’m a fan of curating content in a physical space. It might be a room filled with whiteboards or offering ample open space for flip-charts. A physical location allows people to wander in and out, consider ideas and observations, and add their own thoughts to the evolving discussions. If your team is dispersed geographically, put someone in charge of operating a virtual whiteboard.
5. Check your instinct to prognosticate too early in the process. While we all like to think we’re analysts able to assign probabilities to potential outcomes, focus your initial efforts on discussions, not mathematics. Ask yourself:
- If this materializes in our space, what will it look like?
- How will this impact our customers?
- How might we leverage this trend?
- How might we protect our business against this?
- How do we get out ahead of it before competitors do?
6. Cull the herd. Over time, edit the events down to those the team selects as most likely to impact your space and firm. Shift the dialog to, “How do we defend against or leverage this?”
7. Create the mechanism to turn insights and ideas into actions. Create intelligent experiments out of the insights gained from scanning. Whether it’s scenario analysis, exploration of potential partnerships or acquisitions, or early- stage research and development, the work of scanning must eventually move beyond conversation.
8. Keep refining and improving your processes. Strive to involve more people. Allocate more time for discussions. Consider involving customers and partners in the “what if?” scenarios and draw upon their ideas. Don’t let this process stall or atrophy. Otherwise, you will revert to your tube-like view of the world.
None of us can afford to focus solely on the view from our conference-room window. Other than the color of the grass or leaves on the trees, the view never changes. Work hard as a professional and as a member of your organization to find ways to expand your field of view. While you might not be able to alter the course of that storm bearing down on you, the advance notice will allow you to sidestep or leverage it. Both are better than being blindsided and crushed.