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Opportunity Sensing

In business, we are not particularly good at the kind of singular focus required to take full advantage of pivot points or strategic inflection points when they occur. It often seems we feel the need to mitigate absolutely all of the natural risks associated with a big decision. As a result, we never quite make the commitment necessary to take full advantage of the situation. Instead, we carefully hedge our bets, rather than aggressively pursuing our options and, in the process, we limit the full scope of the opportunity we have.

Opportunity sensing is about taking advantage of the discontinuities when they appear. Opportunity sensing is about staking a claim on an unknown piece of land. Opportunity sensing is knowing, deep in your bones, that what you are about to do just feels right. The leader who can get comfortable with this new way of thinking is the one who will be able to take maximum advantage of the opportunities resident in the state of disequilibrium in which we find ourselves today.

‘How’ Matters More than ‘What’

People like Roger Martin, Tim Brown and Matt Ridley, have it absolutely right when they talk about the fact we need to fundamentally approach problems and think differently. All of them have suggested, in slightly different ways, that our success as leaders in the future will be determined not by WHAT we do but by HOW we look at the future and whether we can genuinely open our minds to the opportunities rather than shelter behind convention and the status quo.

This extends to the material successes seen in modern innovation. The biggest breakthroughs in history have not been in the ‘What’ we do, but in the ‘How’ we do them. People have always travelled; by foot, horse, carriage and even boat. But now we can travel to places faster by car, train and plane. The act of travelling hasn’t changed; but HOW we travel has!

Faint Signals Matter

Most warning signs are not in your face, flashing wildly in different colours to get your attention. As a leader you have to keep your eyes ahead as well as pay attention to what is happening in your periphery. Often, when a brand loses its lustre or deteriorates, the signs and signals were there long before the demise. What may seem insignificant or ‘normal’ could actually be a warning for troubled times. As a leader you have to take note of these signals and respond. Those vague signals can be tough to see. But if you have your head down these signals become impossible to detect. You cannot be a successful Transformational Leader if you don’t implement a radar system to catch these faint signals.

It’s About Choices

Leaders who do not have the ability to “think in the future tense” and more comfortably compete in the realm of the unknown, will not be able to orient themselves and their organizations in time and space. Eventually, they will find themselves sucked into a “black hole.” Leaders must bring a sense of fresh perspective to the table, not about the past, which we already know, but about the future we do not yet understand.

At the end of the day, it is the net result of the choices we make and the things we choose to do, or not to do.You can choose to be nostalgic for the old days – but those days are gone. You will left behind as others continue to move and grow. You can choose to whine about the present – but whining does not inspire nor spark the changes necessary to grow.

Or you can look tot he future – By thinking in the future tense you can anticipate, shape and create the future. These ‘forward thinking’ people are the kind of leaders that are at the head of successful businesses and organizations. And they are the type of leader I would want to follow.

The Coach as Leader

We are nearing the end of what is arguably the largest sporting event in the world; the FIFA World Cup. In the spirit of the tournament I decided to write a quick post linking sports with business deficiencies.

The most talented players only want to play for the right coach with the right system and the right winning culture. In return, frustrated sports fans question whether the loyalty of the players lies with the name on the back of the jersey or the logo on the front. In the future, this same free agent attitude and approach will increasingly be found in the business workplace, where the vast majority of us toil and where the same essential psychology is at play.

The lack of rigorous systems and objective scientific processes in the talent management sphere is only one reason for this deficiency. The other, perhaps even more important, reason is the lack of understanding, poor judgment and the subjective biases that impact our perceptions when it comes to talent spotting and talent management. We all think we are better than we really are when it comes to our people sense.

Mastering Intelligent Opportunism

There is a distinct emotion that accompanies the arrival of a great business opportunity. It is part adrenaline, part fear and part excitement. It is the same emotional high that comes with being close to inevitable victory in a season ending hockey game. It is the point at which everything around slows down, your vision becomes crystal clear and things seem to be effortless, because you can taste victory. In business, moments like these are all too rare. They may be found, from time to time, in the thrill of concluding an acquisition, the inauguration of a new manufacturing plant, the opening of a new store, (or a Game 7 overtime win) but seldom are they part of an organization’s day-to-day experience.

Opening Our Minds

People like Roger Martin, Tim Brown and Matt Ridley, have it absolutely right when they talk about the fact we need to fundamentally approach problems and think differently. All of them have suggested, in slightly different ways, that our success as leaders in the future will be determined not by what we do but by how we look at the future and whether we can genuinely open our minds to the opportunities rather than shelter behind convention and the status quo.

Whether it is the concept of design thinking or integrative thinking, we know with great certainty, innovation does not occur in the land of the safe and the familiar. Innovation only occurs in the land of chaos, confusion and uncertainty. It occurs in what others have called the “zone of productive disequilibrium”. It is where the heat of disagreement sparks the fires of imagination. It is in the discomfort zone. It is in the zone of discontent in which the transformational leader must keep their organization. It is an approach which can only come from a willingness to explore the unknown, rather than exploit the existing.

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Caution or Courage?

Leadership has always been wrapped in the uncertainty that comes from exploring new domains, whether they be geographic, technological or social. The greater the uncertainty, the more we need leaders who are not paralyzed by potential risks but rather invigorated by hidden possibilities. The biggest risk we face as a nation is in allowing ourselves to be too cautious in an environment that demands courage. The benefits we reap will be directly proportional to the risks we take and the risks are small in relation to our potential.

Canada is caught in the throes of a serious dilemma about how best to shape our future and live up to our potential. At the end of the day, it will require us to abandon the model that has taken us this far and to adopt a new model better suited for the times. Admittedly it is a gamble, with risks attached to it, but the alternative is equally, if not more, unattractive. It too carries risk. The rigid fence that surrounds our mental model, and the invisible traps we have set for ourselves by the way we currently think and look at the world, have now become potentially debilitating constraints. As a result, they limit our ability to imagine new, better and more sustainable solutions. We need to find a way to encourage the rebels who display the characteristics and passion that can unleash the value locked in the unconventional thinking of unreasonable people.

Canada’s Brand: Mindset for the Future

Canada has a great deal to offer the world when it comes to business leadership and ideas, but we have not worked hard enough at defining, packaging and exporting our unique point of view. We appear to have been more than willing to outsource our leadership thinking, operating models and business principles to the Americans, and that is simply not in our future best interest. As a result, the brand called Canada is seriously underleveraged.

We must make it an urgent priority to breathe new life into our brand or we will miss the opportunity to seize the business leadership baton from the hands of our shaken American and European cousins. We are all going to live in the future, whether we want to or not, and we can’t afford to allow the future to happen by accident or be shaped by others to suit their own ambitions. We have to be deliberate, thoughtful and intentional. We need a strategic plan for the future of our national brand, but we must begin by first nurturing a new leadership mindset for the future and the leadership competencies that go along with it.

Sadly, there are still too few spokespeople in the leadership field in Canada, and their voices are muted in the boardrooms of business because the voices we do hear tend to come from the halls of academia. We need to fill that void with a robust national dialogue on the subject of what constitutes global business leadership for the future, and then we must begin to develop the type of leaders dictated by the context in which we live. We need Canada’s brand to be known, admired and respected around the world, not just for our products and services, but also for our leadership capabilities and the Canadian way of doing business.

The Evil of Compromise

In recent years, the rules that historically defined and determined the way we think about and conduct business have been sorely tested. In many cases, the rules have been found to be seriously wanting. Many of the old rules on which we had relied in the past have shown themselves to be far from perfectly suited to the modern more turbulent and unpredictable world we live in today and will likely face for the foreseeable future. Other of the rules have simply been misguided, misconceived, misappropriated or misapplied. The concept of collaboration is just one of these. Collaboration is not only measured by the level of cooperativeness shown between people and groups but also by the level of assertiveness that individuals are prepared to show as they strive for optimal outcomes.

Canadians have a terrible tendency to believe we should be artificially kind and modestly self effacing when it comes to confronting harsh realities, long-held misconceptions and serious misalignments in our organizations and their people. We do so in the misguided belief the truth might cause pain and distress and that someone’s feelings might be hurt in the process. This perspective results in a fundamentally flawed and unhealthy preference amongst many Canadian business leaders for conflict avoidance, rather than determined conflict resolution. It is based on the ill-conceived premise that, somehow, we can create high-performance organizations and build high-performance leaders by placing the values of harmony and tranquility higher on the scale of importance than straight talk and truthfulness.