One of the most formative activities of my teen years was a four-year stint as a military cadet. At an age when many adolescents tend to drift toward rebellion and individuality, being a cadet encouraged the very opposite — conformity, compliance, team dependence and resilience.
Marching was one of our regular practices and I quickly learned that the key skill needed for it was peripheral vision. Maintaining straight-line ranks and keeping in step required a constant awareness of what was happening to your left or right without breaking the formal stance by turning your head.
Many new cadets found that using their peripheral vision was quite a challenging skill to master. After all, humans naturally recognise and focus on the things in our central range of vision. However, honing and strengthening our peripheral vision is like a muscle — it takes time and concentrated effort.
In much the same way, honing and strengthening our peripheral vision in a business context can be extraordinarily powerful, but it does take practice. Fostering healthy paranoia requires a constant awareness and sensitivity to what is outside your direct frame of view.
Focussing your peripheral vision requires you to look beyond three things:
1. Industry. To expand your peripheral vision, you need to take your industry blinkers off. In any established industry, it is easy for players to begin to look the same – a phenomenon known as strategy convergence. Engaging the same consulting firms, hiring the same graduates and attending the same conferences almost ensures this. If you are to stand out, the opposite must be done – different conferences attended, different industries engaged.
Apple are the most profitable retailers in the world partly because when they went into the retail space, they didn’t look to other retailers for inspiration but looked outside of the industry. In fact, it was actually the Ritz-Carlton’s approach to concierge customer service that gave rise to Apple’s Genius Bar and store greeters.
2. Context. Looking beyond the immediate context of a business is key to expanding and effectively scanning horizons. Recent years have seen businesses spend staggering sums of money sending executive teams on technology pilgrimages to Silicon Valley. Places like Silicon Valley and Seattle are the world’s engine rooms of innovation and so periodic visits to get a glimpse of the technology and thinking shaping tomorrow can pay enormous dividends. Beyond getting concrete innovation ideas and inspiration, trips such as these can powerfully shift paradigms and build a healthy sense of urgency (and paranoia).
3. Assumptions. The third way to hone your peripheral vision is to challenge the assumptions that may have limited your frame of reference previously. In his insightful book How to Use Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace, Patrick Collister suggests a range of questions to help challenge assumptions long held by an individual or group. The first step is to identify a core assumption that seems undeniably true — one that is even absurd to question. For example: ‘Our customers would never pay more than $x for our product’. Once you have established such an assumption, ask questions such as:
- Who says this is true?
- What led us to draw this conclusion in the first place?
- Is there any evidence that this assumption is still true?
Andy Grove famously challenged core assumptions like this in the 1980s when it became clear that Intel’s highly successful DRAM memory-chip business was doomed. Andy and his co-founder Gordon Moore questioned how a fresh CEO might handle the situation, establishing that they would leave the memory business, and then did it themselves. They in turn shifted Intel’s focus from memory chips to micro processing, and within a few years dominated this emerging technology. They questioned their assumptions and then acted against them.
Look beyond the immediate. Look beyond your industry for inspiration and insight, beyond your contexts to expand your horizons, and beyond your assumptions to challenge the status quo. In doing so, you are guaranteed to focus the peripheral vision that you need to become in-disruptible.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and has written 5 bestselling books. To order Michael's latest book "How to Prepare Now for What's Next", click here.
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 Hamel, G. 2002, Leading the Revolution, Penguin, New York, p. 49.
 Garrison, M. 2013, ‘What Apple Learned From A Luxury Hotel’, Marketplace, 31 December.
 Collister, P. 2017, How to Use Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace, Pan Macmillan, London, p. 158.
 Galant, G. 2016, ‘If We Got Kicked Out And The Board Brought In A New CEO, What Do You Think He’d Do?’, Medium, 22 March.
 Collins, J. & Hansen, M. 2011, Great by Choice, HarperCollins, New York, pp. 139, 140.