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Staying Ahead of the Curve

There are a lot of consultants and advisors who are adept at keeping up with yesterday’s big news. The trouble is, by the time they get comfortable and known for reengineering, team-building, or customer-driven anything, that wave has crashed on the beach and another breaker is forming.

While there’s a certain clarity to be derived from helping a client see what’s been happening, there’s much more power in helping to light the path ahead so that the client can see what’s coming. Even my dogs constantly look out the windshield or crane their necks to look ahead out of the side windows. They’re simply not interested in watching the road disappear behind us.

The art of looking ahead that I’m advocating isn’t “futurism” or some other form of shaky prognostication. (That’s risky business. One Chicago sportswriter confidently predicted that Tiger Woods couldn’t possibly win the Masters. After Woods’s record-breaking performance, I wrote to inquire as to whether there were any criteria whatsoever to be a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune.) I’m referring instead to the ability to help a client interpret trends, avoid the “because we’ve always done it that way” mentality, and accept accountability for proactively raising standards of performance.

I’ve been hired recently by a Fortune 500 financial firm that has produced 20% annual compound growth for five years. Some of the executives, reacting to my recommendations about changing some of the ways they lead and communicate, quickly point out the recent results and comment, “Look, we’re not doing so bad, are we? We’re outperforming the entire market.”

“That’s true, and impressive,” I reply. “So, if you can answer just one question for me, I’ll leave you alone: How do you know you shouldn’t be doing even better? For example, how do you know that you shouldn’t be doing 27% a year?”

That takes care of that, because they’re not sure. Past success never equals future success, but it can certainly equal future complacency. Here are nine key areas to focus on when helping a client consider the future and illuminate the path as brightly as possible:

  • Selection: Are we hiring the kinds of people we need for five years from now, and not the people we needed five years ago?
  • Technology: Are we using technology to augment our productivity, or is it being acquired simply because it’s new (for the moment)?
  • Marketing: What new markets—geographically or demographically—should we be thinking about opening or expanding?
  • Sales: Are there alternative sales methods, i.e., the internet, subscription base, telemarketing, etc., that we should be implementing?
  • Distribution: Are there alternative distribution sources available to us that would speed responsiveness and/or cut costs?
  • Investment: Are we continuing to make investments in areas of high payback in the environment we envision?
  • Commercialization: Is our R&D (or product development) oriented toward a measurable payback in the short-term with fixed accountability?
  • Service: Can we push service closer to the customer and create faster response?
  • Infrastructure: Are we organized in a flat, responsive manner, or are we simply building on the old organization without critical analysis?

Add your own criteria to the checklist. The key is, to what extent are we helping the client to prepare for the future, rather than adapt to the past? Even my dogs can see what’s coming if they lean out far enough.