Author: George Day & Paul Schoemaker|October 09, 2019

Develop Vigilant Leaders to Stay A Step Ahead of Competitors

In the mid-2000s, RadioShack was so focused on serving a growing population of smartphone users that it failed to see it was alienating its loyal electronic hobbyist client base. Those hobbyists began shopping elsewhere, and, when corporations like AT&T and Apple opened their own stores, smartphone users shopped elsewhere, too. RadioShack never recovered.

Sadly, their story is not unique. At some point, nearly every leadership team will miss important signals that could have been caught earlier. Digital technologies often make it hard to see important changes around the corner due to the increased speed and information overload typically associated with them.

Combinations of Digital Capabilities

Combinations of Digital Capabilities

New digital business models can scale lightning fast and an avalanche of digital technologies creates a lot of white noise at first. So, when facing these dual challenges of “digital turbulence,” how can organizations position themselves to be ready ahead of time when risks and opportunities come at them fast? First, they must first learn to see sooner what may lurk around the corner. And second, they must be ready to act when the time is right. This blog addresses the first challenge and our next blog the second one.

The leaders of vulnerable organizations are typically preoccupied with operational concerns and coping with the daily pressures of running a business. As a result, they spend most of their time reacting to events, instead of shaping them. It’s as though they are running on a treadmill, constantly moving but barely keeping up. With so much time and energy focused on putting out fires, there is little time left to sense weak, but important, signals from the periphery — and to probe them more deeply.

Vigilant organizations have figured out how to stay one step ahead by seeing sooner. Attention is a limited resource, and leaders of such organizations are more deliberate about how they use it. They are able to expand this scarce resource by tapping into an organization’s collective attention, setting priorities, changing incentives, and delegating signal seeking across their organization. Vigilance is a collective responsibility that firms must nurture through fostering curiosity, candor, and a concern for the welfare of the organization. Advances in artificial intelligence can also help overwhelmed leaders reduce their administrative load and create slack for the kinds of strategic thinking and peripheral scanning needed to see sooner.

Vigilant leaders should act like explorers, peering through the fog of uncertainty to identify which signals matter and assess how they should respond. To do this well, they should participate in diverse and unconventional knowledge networks, expand their world-views, eschewing echo chambers and connecting with new, unfamiliar sources. They must likewise foster curiosity among their employees, inspiring them to think more deeply about weak signals and how to spot them early.

Unfortunately, most companies do the opposite. Like-minded managers seek out confirmation of their biases and convictions. Research shows that leaders may actually suppress curiosity, fearing that it will reduce efficiency or perhaps encourage employees to question an organization’s strategic plans. But narrowing the firm’s focus comes at the price of being blind-sided.

Connecting with a network of contacts beyond familiar domains requires a tolerance for ambiguity and disagreement — something insecure leaders are uncomfortable with. It also requires the courage of far sighted leaders to take strategic bets that may not pay off. But taking such risks is necessary in a changing world to stay ahead. By trying new things and sharing their misses, executives can transform blind spots into the building blocks that foster sharper anticipation. Leaders need to reflect on how well they create and mine their own networks and build new ones. What purpose does each network serve? Do they corroborate or confront existing beliefs? To scan wider, leaders should also encourage their colleagues to read cutting-edge blogs, joining LinkedIn interest groups outside their own fields, and tap into the wisdom of the crowd — both inside and outside their ranks.

Leaders who encourage diverse views and networking beyond the organization’s comfort zone will cultivate a shared sense of curiosity across their organization. Once that curiosity is triggered and supported, employees will start to think more deeply about weak signals, share their concerns, and help the firm adapt to uncertainty. Vigilant leaders excel at harnessing such collective attention and probing. They make sure the entire organization is on alert 24/7, finding and anticipating signals more quickly and more intelligently than their rivals.

In short, they master how to see sooner.

How far along is your organization at this point?

What else does it need to do see around corner faster and sharper than rivals?