Sometimes a different perspective can do wonders for your company's strategic approach.
Nearly everyone has had their life dramatically changed due to COVID-19. One of the myriad changes to my life has been a shift in my travel. For more than a decade, I would spend some portion of each week traveling the world to visit clients, and I can't recall the last month that went by without a half-dozen airplane rides and associated hotel rooms. This year, I stopped flying in February, and haven't been in an airport since. It's been wonderful for spending time with my family and getting deeply connected to the rhythms of family life. One of the few things I miss about the travel, however, is the change in perspective that it brought.
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This hit home several weeks ago when we decided to take a "safe vacation," traveling to a family member's home in Florida that they'd recently vacated. While we weren't able to do our usual activities, the simple change in physical location was surprisingly uplifting for all of us, especially as our activities and movements had been so restricted over the previous months.
The power of a new perspective
There's a rather obvious benefit to shifting your physical location. Your awareness of your surroundings is heightened as many things are unfamiliar, and your routines are forcibly broken since the people and environment around you are different. While it can be difficult to take a vacation every time you need a new perspective, a simple walk outside, or even a visit to a different department and conversation with someone outside IT, can provide some of that perspective.
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Even more dramatically, immersing yourself in a different industry or organization can provide a large helping of perspective, and is also one of the most powerful ways to generate new initiatives and strategies for your technology organization. History is rife with inventions that failed at their designed purpose, but were wildly successful in another application. From Play-Doh, which was designed as a wallpaper remover, to the ubiquitous Post-it note, which leveraged an unwanted and accidentally discovered adhesive, what's interesting is that the application of these inventions was perhaps even more important than the invention itself. In many cases, the inventor failed to make the connection between his or her invention and a completely different application, requiring a change in perspective or an outsider's help to see the connection.
Changing your scenery
It was occasionally flabbergasting that during my early career, when I was focused more on individual technologies, companies would ask for dozens of case studies where another company in their industry had applied the technology in question in exactly the manner they were considering. There's certainly a valid risk mitigation aspect to this—if someone else has successfully done what you're trying to do, it's probably a safe bet to follow their path. However, many of these clients included "innovation" or "competitive advantage" among their objectives, which was odd since they were essentially asking what everyone else was doing, and how they could do the exact same thing.
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A smaller, and more interesting set of companies I would speak with had aspirational companies or industries in mind that were very different from their own and were not direct competitors. An aerospace company might look to an automaker for new perspectives, or more interestingly, a state government might look to Amazon for inspiration on how to serve its residents. These companies would try to imagine their aspirational company operating their business. How would they deploy their core technology assets? How might they view their business partners and customers differently? What risks would they be willing to take, and what "industry norms" might they readily challenge and abandon?
In some cases, this simple and no-cost exercise in shifting perspectives dramatically reshaped these companies' strategies, the technologies they applied, and even their core mission. Some of the more extreme examples, like governments imagining Amazon running their entity, have even caused dramatic reorganization of agencies to focus more on customer needs than functional silos.
Take a trip without leaving town
Try this simple perspective-shifting exercise at your next leadership meeting. Spend an hour considering what would happen if Amazon or Uber ran your business. What technologies would they deploy? What would they regard as the most important aspects of your business, and what would they quickly cast aside? What questions would they ask and what assumptions would they challenge? How would they deliver products and services differently than what you're doing today?
Many of the answers to these questions will be uncomfortable, or quickly met with "that will never work here," but if nothing else, you'll gain a new perspective on your business that will help shape your technology strategy, and perhaps serve as fodder for some interesting conversations with your fellow leaders.
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