For decades, the mandate of successful executives was to set a plan and stick with it. Those days are gone, says Grant McCracken, an anthropologist and author of Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football . . . Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas. “Capitalism used to be so analytical, precise, and rule-oriented,” he says. “The whole job of management was staying away from what was intuitive.” But the reverse is now true, he argues, and the most successful leaders are experts in adapting quickly and listening to their hunches.
The transition to a new business reality isn’t easy. “We’re living in a world so complicated, we want to have access to the full, deepest part of our problem-solving abilities,” says McCracken, “and that means we’re dealing with something messier and harder to manage. The organizations that flourish in a world like this are fast, noisy, and intuitive. It can be really tough for managers.”
So how can leaders thrive in the new business reality? Here are three tips from McCracken.
Immerse yourself in a discipline. Studying business is great, says McCracken – but you’ll bring a lot more to the table if you’ve first studied another field (such as literature, psychology, or political science) intensively. If you understand the history and axioms of a field, then you’re better equipped to catch it when something’s different or awry: “Stray observations snap together,” says McCracken, “and then you’ve got something.”
Read widely. McCracken calls it “foraging” – the essential process of gathering new inputs to help you understand the world. Whether it’s business journals, blogs, or miscellaneous bits of culture, taking in new insights can help you understand what others are talking about – and develop your own insights by peering in the margins. “Every so often, there’s something that makes you start,” says McCracken. “When you get that little jolt, there’s something in the world that needs your attention, and it’s fun to do that archaeology, that excavation.” After all, it could mean your next million-dollar idea.
Play with mad money. Not every company embraces experimentation and innovation – but they should, argues McCracken. “There should be a small amount of money and, for exploratory purposes, you should let your people go a bit crazy. Some of these things will pay off and become a revenue stream, but they’ll always return an intellectual, imaginative energy.” Like Google’s famed “20% time,” McCracken says companies should allow employees a few hours a week to kick the tires on new ideas: “There may not be an obvious ROI, but it feels right and engages a deeper instinct. You know there’s something there, even if you’re not quite sure what it is…there’s a hum, and people want to work there.”
As the pace of business has accelerated, the ability to take in disparate information – and make sense of its implications – has become critical, says McCracken. “It used to be that pattern recognition was something we could live with or live without,” he says. “But now we should be listening to our faintest signals, because it gives us that additional year or two [on the competition]. It used to be optional – but as the time horizon pushes upon us, it’s become essential.”
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 7, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.