Every entrepreneur realizes that change is now the norm, and they have to adapt their business quickly to survive and prosper. In fact, the best entrepreneurs seem to see breakthrough changes coming even before they really happen, and are able to turn them into huge new opportunities. In the trade, this rare capability is called the ability to see around corners.
While only a few people seem to be born with the right genes, I’m convinced that it is also a skill that can be learned and even institutionalized. In the classic book, “The Attacker’s Advantage,” by world-renowned business advisor Ram Charan, I found some real guidance on what skills are required, what to look for, and how to react in time. Here is a summary of his five basic strategies:
- Always on the alert, sensing for signals and meaning of change. Technically, this is known as perceptual acuity. Smart entrepreneurs compare perceptions with a diverse group of leaders and experts on a regular basis. They search for impending changes across multiple environments, and reflect on these to spark new ideas for growth.
- A mind-set to see opportunity in uncertainty. Uncertainty is an invitation to go on the attack and entrepreneurs need to be always ready to take their business to a new place in the changing landscape. They should never be defensive, and accept reality when core competencies are actually a hindrance to moving in a more promising direction.
- The ability to see a new path forward and commit to it. Leading entrepreneurs don’t wait for everyone to agree with their view of where to take the business, and have the courage of their convictions. They pursue new opportunities with tenacity, identify the obstacles they need to overcome, the blockages that stand in the way, and attack them.
- Adeptness in managing the transition to the new path. These entrepreneurs stay connected to both external and internal realities to know when to accelerate and when to shift the short-term/long-term balance, with a sharp eye on cash flow and debt. They create and meet short-term milestones to win credibility with investors and stakeholders.
- Skill in making the organization steerable and agile. No business leader can succeed in driving change without being able to bring key people on the team along. They learn to be agile, or steerable, by linking the external realities in real time to assignments, priorities, decision-making power, funding, and key performance indicators.
Examples of recent entrepreneurs who exemplify these attributes include Steve Jobs, who moved Apple from a computer company to smart phones and music, Elon Musk, who seems to be capitalizing on structural changes in the auto industry and space travel, and Jeff Bezos, who parlayed selling books on the Internet to a whole new paradigm for shopping from home.
Too many entrepreneurs allow the pressures of daily crises and total immersion in tactical details to narrow their thinking and to lower the altitude of their view. Everyone needs to find and hone the techniques that work for them in maintaining that perceptual acuity. Here are a few that both Charan and I recommend to get started:
Set aside ten minutes of each weekly staff meeting for that purpose.
Seek contrary viewpoints from people you respect, rather than compiling support.
Regularly dissect the past, to look for change signals you and others missed.
Continually increase your mental map of key changes in multiple industries.
Evaluate who might use an invention, patent, or new law to create a bend in the road.
Use outsiders to multiply your capacity to scan for disrupting patterns.
Watch the social scene, looking for new consumer behaviors and trends.
Be a voracious reader in all forms of media, both online and offline.
Even if you can’t see around the corners, it helps to have the perceptual acuity to see bends in the road before others. With that, and the courage to accelerate towards them as opportunities, rather than slowing down to mount a defense, you too can be a winner, rather than a victim in today’s uncertain but unlimited market.