Think Like an Explorer

Businessman Walking Outdoors

When I was sixteen, I went on a 2-week horseback trip in the Bighorn mountains of Wyoming. Each morning, we were given the coordinates of the location where we would camp that night, then turned loose with map and compass. It was satisfying to arrive at the destination each night, after navigating our way through the mountains on our own.

Heading a new strategic direction—entering a new market, innovating a new product line, or changing the way we go to market—can feel like heading out into the wilderness. If we think like an explorer would, however, we can find our way to new sources of profit and growth.

Here are three points to keep in mind when navigating new strategic territory:

1. Make the Destination Clear

When embarking on a new strategy, we sometimes think we need to spell out every step of the plan to employees. In fast-changing markets, however, we need to give employees the leeway to learn as they go, to adapt and respond as they encounter new conditions. We need to make the destination—the desired future state—clear, and let employees find their way.

Just as important as sharing intent with your employees is doing so with your suppliers, partners and customers. When they know your company’s intended direction, they can align their investments, systems and innovations to support your future direction.

2. Send a Scouting Party

Explorers entering new territory send a scouting party ahead. This small group travels light. They find the pass through the mountains, the safest place to ford the river, where the dangers lie, and where food can be procured. They return with this information, and then the entire expedition can proceed more efficiently and safely.

Similarly, experiments and pilots are crucial for testing the waters when heading a new strategic direction. By experimenting and testing, we learn the best path forward without risking the entire business. <— Click to Tweet

When a company I know decided to enter a new market, they first assigned a small group of employees to create prototype designs and test them with customers. Their initial designs were all wrong, but they learned fast, with minimal risk to the core business.

3. Tap Into Diverse Perspectives

Explorers, from olden times to modern space missions, make a point of having diverse skills on their teams. The Lewis and Clark expedition included military men, trappers and traders, interpreters, scientists, and even fiddle players (and, of course, Sacagawea).

Gaining input from across your company—from different functions, levels, geographic regions and perspectives—is especially important when entering uncharted waters. Having a diverse team, comprised of some who are especially creative, some who are very analytical, some who know the nuts and bolts, and some who are skeptics, enables you to build a more robust and practical plan and to anticipate and prepare for roadblocks.

4. Exploit Surprises

The best explorers expected surprises, and took advantage of them. In business. surprises often contain the kernel of a new opportunity. But, you have to be alert for them. Pay attention to unexpected successes—customers who are buying more than you expect, products that are unexpectedly profitable, things that go more easily than expected. Spot these surprises, and figure out how you can replicate or expand upon them.

What does “thinking like an explorer” mean for your business? I would love to hear your ideas and examples.


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