Jun 19 2007

Peripheral vision

One of the great challenges of business in general and smaller, fast growing businesses in particular is figuring out the balance between near term focus and long term vision.  While all companies become slaves to the calendar (striving for quarterly sales targets, specific product release dates, etc.) too many never look up to see where they are really headed.  I’m not talking about making sure you have the latest IDC report on your industry on your bedstand, I’m talking about having a meaningful understanding of your business, you competitors and spending real time focusing on how and where you are going to take your company.

The typical paradigm for this is wrong, in my estimation – and most companies that I’ve seen are missing the boat.  Companies spend almost 100% of their time focused on the here and now and designate only discrete periods of time on future planning (their annual strategy session, at the board meeting where they review their next year’s plan, etc.).  To borrow an analogy from mountain biking (sorry – cycling season is in full force and it’s on my brain), companies need to be focused on where they are headed, as opposed to where they are, and use their peripheral vision to avoid current obstacles.  In cycling you look up trail – focusing not on what you’re riding over at the moment, but what you’re about to come upon (and by the time you’re there, you’re focused on the next thing).  The faster you’re moving, the farther ahead you need to be looking (because it’s on you before you know it). 

Management teams that get this right are consistently engaged in conversation about the future of their company and industry.  Product strategy discussions are broad and include not just product management and engineering but executives from across the company.  Feedback from customers is not siloed in sales, but is shared across an organization.  These companies have regular time set aside for execs and employees to spend unstructured time together taking about what’s working in their business and what needs improving; what customers are asking for; what their competition is doing; what the trade press is writing about; what would be ‘cool’ to include on their product wish lists; what’s not working in the business; etc.

This activity doesn’t replace knowing where you are (your peripheral vision is important) but better informs where you are by knowing (really knowing) where you are headed.