It’s a new year with new goals, and you have rededicated yourself to driving results. You are focused and energized. Head down.
Wait. With your head down, you just might miss the signs of change, the subtle shifts that signal that your customers are operating in a different way, that competition is coming from someplace unexpected, that the nature of your opportunity has changed.
As the pace of change continues to accelerate, the task of keeping up should be part of your job description. Here are a few simple ways to look beyond the next quarter:
Get out of the building: Dedicate 20 percent of your time to talking to people doing things differently than you. Look outside of your industry, find people who work at different stage companies, and seek out those doing things that conventional wisdom says probably won’t work for you. Talk to your company’s alumni. No agenda. Just ask good questions, listen, and learn.
Read the startup blogs: Alternative business models, lean product development, scaling, demand generation, technology trials–there’s a rich curriculum shared by founders, investors, and academics (and their commenters) in the blogosphere. Consider these to be your virtual R&D department. Read them, join the conversation, and invite them out for coffee. Most of these startups probably won’t make it, but their ideas will. (For a great place to start, see Harvard professor Tom Eisenmann’s list of best startup posts of 2012.)
Watch your kids: They know something you don’t know. Watch how they communicate with their friends, how they interact with their favorite brands, and how they consume media. Don’t get distracted by the particular app or platform; those come and go. Rather, what’s the larger change they are living? Does it signal a real shift in behavior? What’s it displacing? These are your future colleagues and customers. There’s no better focus group.
Engage, digitally: You simply must use digital technology. I mean really use it, not just look it over. You can’t be everywhere, and you can’t jump on every new app that gets popular, but there are core technologies you need to understand deeply as a user. How do you decide which ones? How about focusing where your customers are most digitally engaged? (And while you’re at it, use the tools of digital communications to seek out alternative voices. It’s too easy to build a digital cocoon that reinforces what you already believe. Find challenging perspectives out there.)
Talk to the people who you want to talk to: There’s nothing new about suggesting that you get to know your customers. But today that should mean more than understanding their business challenges (no small task). You need to understand their digital lives–and be a part of them. If your job is to communicate to your customers, then you need to know how and where they are communicating, and with whom. Disruption does not occur with a bang; it’s a series of subtle shifts that change your relationship to the marketplace and your customers’ perspective on where you sit in that marketplace. This is not a conversation about products or services. It’s a conversation about change, and about living that change together.
Partner to learn: Maybe you don’t have the budget to do a lot of experimentation; maybe it’s hard to sell a skunk-works project internally; maybe your internal tech resources are stretched or uncomfortable with life outside the firewall. Look for partners–people who are playing in spaces where you are not, people with capabilities you admire. Find creative (read: inexpensive) ways to partner. (Leave the corporate branding people, the heavy-duty legal guys, and the paper-pushing sourcing team behind. Keep the arrangement light.) The goal is to leverage your partner’s learning. Anything else is gravy.
Hire somebody unexpected: It’s a new year; bring in new voices. Your company sits in a bubble, and your department sits in a bubble inside that bubble. (Elsewhere that may be called “culture.”) Hire someone from outside of your industry, from a startup, from an underrepresented ethnicity, geography, or age group. Hire someone who looks like your customers. Better yet, hire someone who looks like your customers five years from now. Pierce the bubble.
While there’s no question that you need focus to deliver on your 2013 promises, put just some of that new year’s energy toward next year–and beyond. What are you doing to push your thinking? How are you balancing the demands of the day-to-day with the need to see around the next corner?