Strategy

I Can See Clearly Now

Four books this month dole out instructions about peering into the future.
Paul B. BrownJune 1, 2007

Great minds think alike. And therein lies the problem.

If everyone thinks the same way, then everyone is going to come to the same conclusions, and creating something different than the other guy is going to be extremely difficult. The problem is compounded, argues Erich Joachimsthaler in Hidden in Plain Sight (Harvard Business School Press, $29.95), by the fact that companies consistently get in their own way. And the more success the company achieves, the more difficult it becomes to see something new.

The argument — which academics such as Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford refer to as a “competency trap”—goes like this: Let’s say you introduce a new product — it doesn’t matter if it is soap or software — and it is successful. The more successful it becomes, the more resources the company puts behind it to increase profits. The more money the company makes, the more specialized it becomes.

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But as it becomes more specialized, management becomes locked into a myopic way of seeing the world. That makes it hard to spot new trends and deal with market changes. Joachimsthaler, who runs a strategy and marketing consultancy, provides a great example: Sony was so successful with its Walkman that it failed to notice how consumers were changing the way they bought, listened to, and stored music. Apple’s iPod captured a market that rightfully should have been Sony’s, says the author.

The way around the competency-trap problem is threefold, argues Joachimsthaler. First, executives need to see customers as people. Look at how these potential buyers live their lives, identify their needs, focus on how those needs are changing. Maybe what the company is offering makes sense, but perhaps, as noted in the Walkman-iPod example, what they want is not what you got.

Second, constantly challenge what has worked for the company in the past to avoid a Walkman-type pitfall. Finally, “design strategies around people’s behaviors.” Think Starbucks: it sells coffee and other drinks and goodies everywhere people are likely to be enticed by the aroma of fresh-brewed ambrosia — in retail stores, supermarkets, shopping malls, college campuses, airplanes. They key, says Joachimsthaler, is making sure the company focus moves beyond the organization.

That is exactly the point Peter A. Gloor and Scott M. Cooper, both associated with MIT, write about in what is the best book of the month, Coolhunting (Amacom, $24.95). First their definition: “Coolhunting involves making observations and predictions as part of the search for cutting-edge trends. It is a way of capturing what the collective mind is thinking, and using what is captured to advantage.”

The book’s focus is trained on how to obtain the necessary data to begin searching for patterns, and the authors are terrific at pointing out that the information is all around — providing executives are willing to look outside their office walls.

Start with the obvious places, such as headlines and stories from the traditional media, then move on to product users groups, and then to Internet newsgroups, community Websites (Yahoo groups, tribe.net, etc.), lists of the most E-mailed articles (see CFO.com’s home page), lists of the most frequently purchased books on Amazon.com, moderated news Websites such as Wikinews, and blogs (check out the CFO.com blog, too).

The authors leave it up to the reader to figure out how to connect the dots, which is annoying, and their zeal for their method can border on the silly — at one point, they contend that every “cool” product, including the iPod, makes the world a better place (their weak rationale: if kids are listening to music, they are avoiding trouble). Nevertheless, the duo’s conviction that a company should not be the sole source of big ideas is absolutely correct.

Of course, one of the major problems with peering into crystal balls is that a person’s ability to see herself clearly is limited. Blind Spots, written by executive coach Claudia M. Shelton (Wiley, $24.95), is designed to help restore some of that vision.

To some extent, she succeeds. For example, Shelton is good at defining the problem: “Blinds spots are things we think and do unconsciously that negatively influence how other people feel about us,” she writes. “Sometimes they are seen as irritating habits. At worst they can be tragic flaws that can derail your career entirely.”

Shelton also provides a five-part checklist to help readers find their blind spots. One of her best insights is that people often rely too heavily on what they do best. “The most frequent blind spot I see is someone overusing [their] core strengths,” she contends.

For example, if managers pride themselves on being able to communicate directly, they can be seen as brusque. If they are particularly good at solving complex problems on their own, they could be viewed as aloof. Unfortunately, Shelton is less effective in providing information about overcoming blind spots. The two different templates for improvement she provides don’t seem to mesh, and with the exception of asking other people to identify your blind spots, the book lacks practical steps for improvement.

The authors of the extremely snarky I Didn’t See It Coming (Wiley, $24.95) don’t have that problem: they offer plenty of “how-to’s,” almost all of which are designed to CYA. Think of Machiavelli’s The Prince without the sophistication or charm and you’ll get the feel for this book, written by Nancy C. Widmann, formerly of CBS radio, Elaine J. Eisenman, dean of executive education at Babson College, and Amy Dorn Kopelman, formerly of ABC.

Indeed, they have created an extremely cynical depiction of work. They write: “Companies never want to make noise about one employee’s contribution and impact over another’s because of fear of damaging morale or creating a star system. Companies aren’t likely to do away with the team system any time soon. Your goal should be to get credit for good work without coming off like a self-promoter.”

But for all their scorn, they do make one solid point. When thinking about the future, the most important thing to do is to have a personal exit strategy in place. “It is impossible to be a truly creative, innovative, out-of-the-box leader if you are afraid of losing your job,” they note. “Knowing exactly what you’d do if the ax suddenly dropped gives you a sense of security that allows you to lead more effectively. If you are not completely confident that you can survive for a while without this job, you won’t have the confidence to take the risks necessary for success.”