Rita McGrath Transcript

Rita McGrath is a professor at Columbia Business School and author of the new book, Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen. She was also recently ranked #5 on the Thinkers50 list for her work in strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship and for being a champion of harnessing disruptive influences for competitive advantage.

What does it actually mean to see around corners? Rita says it’s not about predicting the future, because predictions are hard, but it is about paying attention to signals. She says, “it’s more about expanding your range of possibilities that you’re considering, and then really being prepared to challenge your own assumptions. And I think that’s really where the seeing around corners part is so valuable, because if you think about it, any business grows up with a set of assumptions about what’s possible and what’s not. And what an inflection point does is it really changes the nature of those assumptions.”

Companies have to be able to pay attention to possible disruptions that could affect the way they do business. But what tends to happen is companies get comfortable doing the same thing and they think as long as it is working now, it will continue to work in the future. Companies such as Blockbuster and Toys R Us didn’t pay attention to signals all around that would have allowed them to adapt with the times and because they failed to pay attention they are no longer around.

Rita explains that the way to keep a lookout for inflection points is to think of a disaster scenario that would have a huge impact on your company and then work backwards from that “time zero event” to see if it has merit. For example, for someone working at a business school an example of a scenario would be students lose interest and employers don’t really care about business degrees. So the time zero event could be 50% of all existing business programs shut down, working backwards what would have to happen for that to take place?

And by looking at all the evidence you can figure out either this is not a likely scenario at all so just forget about it, or it is a very real possibility so what can I do to shift my strategy.

So what can you start doing now to improve your ability to “see around corners”? Rita says, “I think the first thing is this idea of the edges, that you really need to embed ways of learning about what’s happening, that isn’t right in front of you, that’s farther out. Go to conferences that aren’t directly related to what you do, maybe take a training course. Today, you can learn almost anything in 10 minutes a day on YouTube, and that’s really interesting. I read a lot. I actually… One of the reasons I really like my Twitter feed, and to some extent, LinkedIn, is a lot of the people that I interact with introduce me to sources I wouldn’t necessarily have run across on my own. And I think that’s another kind of interesting practice. I would say, this takes time. Now, it doesn’t take huge amounts of time, but if you’re spending every waking moment nose to the grindstone, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, you’re much more vulnerable to missing things than if you give yourself a little bit of that imagination space.”

What you will learn:

    What it means to see around corners
    Why leaders struggle to see around corners
    How to spot inflection points and avoid downfalls in business
    Real-life examples of companies who survived disruption
    How is the role of CEO going to change in the next 5-10 years

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