How Leading Innovators Think Ahead of the Curve

By Robert B. Tucker

 

The other day in Cincinnati I met with Filippo Passerini, Procter & Gamble’s hard-charging chief information officer. Fascinating guy. Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Rome. Father of three. Technical mountain climber. And the toast of his organization right now for what he and his
troops have been able to accomplish.

Passerini was the driving force behind Procter’s radical revamping of its entire back office operations. The move obliterated $1.2 billion in costs from P&G. It enabled the consumer products giant to respond quickly to the Global Economic Crisis, and bring new products to market faster
than ever.

So how does Filippo unwind after routinely putting in 60 hour weeks? He plays chess. “Thinking what your opponent will do three moves out is good discipline for business,” he told me in a thick Italian accent. Filippo is the perfect illustration of a vital innovation skill that I call thinking ahead of
the curve.

“It was our reading of trends that led us to make this move,” he explained. In frequent open-ended brainstorming sessions, he and his core team of five saw that the world was shifting. It was moving from “big is good” to “flexible is good” to “network is good.”

“Fifteen years ago, if you were a big company, that was a competitive advantage. Then flexibility was the way to achieve it. But we saw that over the next five years the network would become more and more important.” What to do? Passerini’s vision was that the entire company should operate from one consolidated, integrated global network. He and his team assaulted the assumption that the way P&G handled back office functions like finance and accounting, HR, facilities management, and IT was good enough. They knew it was riddled with duplication and waste. So they set forth to build a new unit – Global Business Services – to take over and consolidate all such operations.

Today, “shared-services centers” in Costa Rica, Manila and Newcastle, England provide networked support around the clock to P&G operations everywhere. All nonstrategic activities have been outsourced to outside vendors. And Passerini and his group have “decommoditized ourselves” from being an internal service provider to become a strategic partner to the organization.

In researching the book, Innovation is Everybody’s Business, I interviewed dozens of high output managers and individual contributors like Filippo Passerini. They don’t try to predict the future, which is impossible. But they do make it a priority to spend time thinking ahead of the curve.

“One of our pillars is thinking out in the future and anticipating what is coming and then making your move,” said Passerini. “It’s so much better than reacting.”

Innovation-adept leaders like Filippo Passerini don’t just gather better intelligence. They creatively crunch this data, argue about it, debate its implications, and try to connect the dots in some meaningful fashion. They seek to arrive at a point of view, both individually and collectively, about how to turn today’s rapid changes into tomorrow’s opportunities. And then they take action.

Eight Components to Thinking Ahead of the Curve:

  1. Audit your information diet. The innovators I’ve met during the past 25 years all work at keeping abreast of the latest trends with uncommon passion. They pore over data. They are eager and curious readers of a variety of publications and the latest books. Your diet is composed of information you consume and all that you expose yourself to. How nutritious is your diet?
  2. Think of yourself as the eyes and ears of your organization. Figure out what’s going on out there that your organization and department needs to know about. Who’s monitoring technological, demographic, social, and economic trends in your organization? How can you reach out to these people and demonstrate your interest? Make competitive intelligence your competitive edge.
  3. Build up your information and support network. Nurturing this group of contacts is essential. Giving, and sharing information, tips and tidbits is an ongoing necessity if you expect to call upon these folks for feedback, a shoulder to cry on, or someone to brag to when you’ve had a success episode. Give them wide your attention, and they will give you wise counsel and keep you in the know.
  4. Seek out forward thinking, idea-oriented people. Take a moment right now and make a list of the people you know who truly stimulate your creativity when you are around them. Then ask yourself how you can arrange to spend more time with these people without slighting your other responsibilities. Make it a point to attend lectures and watch interview programs like Charlie Rose.
  5. Master the art of the deep dive. This means paying attention to the changes happening all around you, and spotting the knowledge deficits that arise in a world of rapid change, and being willing to dig up knowledge to move you ahead.
  6. Develop your point of view on key issues. The ability to think ahead of the curve demands more than that you skim and skitter, scan and monitor. It also requires that you ponder what you read. It requires that you take the time to develop your own point of view, based on our careful analysis of what you read. If you begin to do this, people will start thinking that you have that rare and highly valued attribute known as vision.
  7. Connect the dots. Be willing to start from scratch and learn a new area. Figure out your “dots” and then find ways to connect your various skill sets to become a more powerful, multi-dimensional, unique person. The innovators I’ve met are always learning and looking outside the artificial boundaries that divide departments, professions, industries and cultures. They always connect the disconnected.
  8. Give people permission to give you brutally honest feedback. Don’t shoot the messenger. Thank people for identifying problems early and giving you the opportunity to solve them. Part of it is the way you handle candid feedback, but the other part is being open to the value of information that makes you uncomfortable.

How are you “sussing out” (as the British say) the trends in your market and in the wider world? What’s new in your information diet that’s stimulating your thinking? What trends, emerging technologies and developments are you doing deep dives on to gain a knowledge edge? “I manage my life like a chess game,” Filippo told me as I was leaving his office. “I still continue to study every day.”

Not bad advice for all of us.