We all want to come up with the next idea that catapults our product, our team, or our business to new heights. But where to start?
Sometimes, the best place to look for inspiration is close to home.
Finding the right opportunities to demonstrate leadership is part science, part art. A while back, I explained how the major challenges facing your organization should guide how you prioritize and approach your own work. It’s important that you make the effort to find these hidden problems, because they provide you with the context you need to make good decisions. However, the complexity of some of these problems will exceed what you can reasonably solve when you’re starting out. Just as importantly, you may lack the clout and experience to implement solutions with wide-ranging impacts at this point in your career. Don’t let the magnitude of a challenge scare you away off the bat, but if you have no chance of influencing an outcome in one area, don’t get too fixated on it. Rather than getting discouraged or falling into the negative behaviors that impede thought leadership, find something that gives you a better chance to add value and build your profile in the near-term.
There are several benefits to focusing on smaller-scale problems challenges that you can get your arms around. First, there are bound to be many smaller-scale yet still important problems crying out for attention that you can make actually progress against on your own. It’s helpful to not need to rely on too many other people for your pet projects that you might be working on at irregular intervals. Such projects are great for racking up wins and building career momentum early. Plus the mistakes you make will not be as high-profile. Trust me, you will need all the practice reps you can get taking your ideas from origination through acceptance and adoption. Later on when the stakes are higher and you’re tackling the really big challenges, you will be grateful for all the lessons you learned the hard way out of the spotlight.
Improve the Way You Work
Another benefit of starting smaller is that you can channel your innovative impulses to making your day-to-day job easier. Once you’ve got your feet under you, do an audit of all the tasks you have to accomplish in a month and ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the most painful or annoying part of my job?
- Where do I and others make the most errors?
- Where do the systems or tools I have to use get in the way or make my life difficult?
- Which people should know what I’m working on, but don’t?
- Do I spend inordinate time on repetitive manual tasks that could be automated?
- Am I creating certain outputs that don’t add any value (e.g. no one reads them)?
- Do I regularly lack the information I need to do some part of my job?
Take your answers to these questions and do your own root cause analysis. If this is a new concept to you, root cause analysis is straightforward. For each of the answers you come up with to the above questions ask why situation is as it is. For example, let’s say you spend two hours each week summarizing your competitors’ press releases for your managers, but you know they don’t read it. You put it together because your manager told you to, so why she ask for it? Dig through a few more of these “why” layers, asking others where necessary, and maybe you learn that a few senior managers were called out for not being aware of new products your competitors had introduced. So in response, they asked you to create this summary each week to help them stay on top of things. Now that you understand why you’re putting together this report, you might see better ways to provide managers with the information they need. Or you might start from a different angle and ask why you’re doing something so tedious in the first place. Regardless, your audit is guaranteed to reveal at least a few things that could be done more efficiently or effectively, or simply don’t merit the time investment you’re making.
Make recommendations to the powers that be if you need to, and then follow through on what you say. As you put the solutions you identify into action, you’ll build confidence and start learning the tricks of the trade for getting things done. Learning how to manage change when your recommendation requires people to alter their behavior is an important skill, and it’s usually more difficult than you think it will be at first. When you start addressing bigger challenges, it won’t be the first time that people have heard your voice.
Bridge the Gaps in Internal Communication
Inter-departmental communication always provides opportunities for improvement, and can thus be a good place to demonstrate leadership early in your career. Just as your role description represents an organizational decision about how to best accomplish a certain set of activities, the org chart reflects a set of decisions about which lines of communication are most important to running the business effectively (Ben Horowitz describes this well in The Hard Thing about Hard Things, one of my favorite business books). By definition, the organization makes trade-offs here, since optimizing for one line of communication will come at the expense of another. For example, say the head of Research & Development at your company reports directly to the CEO. That means a decision was made at some point in the past that the steward of the company’s vision (the CEO) should guide the R&D group’s agenda. In similar vein, the Marketing department is tasked with identifying unmet customer needs and sizing their economic value, but the marketing chief reports to the Chief Operating Officer (COO) rather than the CEO. Turning the R&D team’s outputs into more revenue for the business requires a high-performing relationship between R&D and Marketing, but that is not the communication line for which the organization has optimized. If you are in either the R&D or Marketing department, finding any way you can to increase the flow of information between the two teams benefits the business.
Get a hold of your company’s org chart and look for the fault lines. Which departments have shared concerns but are cut off from others? The picture may be complicated in large organizations, and you may not even know what all of the different departments do. Having to figure those things out only makes the exercise more valuable for you. Note where your critical knowledge gaps are today and whether the org structure reinforces the gap between your team and others. Then, and this is critical, don’t wait for an invitation or a big meeting to get started bridging the divide. Take someone in one of those departments to lunch or out for a beer and just ask them what they’re working on right now. Do it this week. You will be shocked at how many useful things you’ll learn right away. Share your findings with your team, and wherever possible look to solidify the lines of communication with teams that are on a different “slope” to the top than yours is.
Capitalize on Unused Information
If you’ve been working for a few years, you have likely by now experienced the frustration of working on something only to find out that it wasn’t needed because someone else already had already done what you’re doing. This happens because, (a) most of the big questions you can ask about the business have been asked before, and (b) it’s easy for companies to lose track of what they know. The upshot is there’s a good chance that someone has tried to answer them before and captured their findings somewhere.
The following sources can be treasure troves of information for you:
- Customer satisfaction surveys
- Reports prepared by consultants and market research agencies
- Internal presentations sitting in document management systems
- Sales call notes stored in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system
- Online reviews of your product or service, if applicable
Pay special attention to the information that is the hardest for others to digest. The unstructured data in the form of customer feedback forms, salespeople’s notes, and so on and so on are ideal. Not only do these sources contain valuable insights, but because people can’t easily absorb them they often go under-utilized. It’s amazing how much information at big companies goes unused because it is in an inconvenient format. If you want to learn enough about the business to substantially improve it, you must go where others dare not tread. All of this abandoned information is gold just waiting to be mined.