In the process of coaching promising employees over the years, I have often found myself giving advice to be more strategic in their thinking, or to work on seeing the big picture. They will often ask why this is important or ask for examples of the gap in their thinking process, and are eager for techniques to address the issue. Lets explore these questions here.
Seeing the big picture is about looking at the business environment and your companys position in it from 20,000 feet up. The purpose of doing so is simply this: The view may allow to you to see either risks or opportunities that you are unlikely to see from your current vantage point. You may avoid getting blindsided by a previously unacknowledged risk, or you may secure a competitive advantage by being the first to identify and capture a market opportunity.
Of course this is not so easy to do in practice. A useful first step is to make some time to do it without the interruptions of your daily job, and choose some colleagues with whom to work. It is helpful to have colleagues from different functions, different levels and with different backgrounds so as to get the most creativity and diversity in the room. Beyond this, there are different ways to approach the task, so let me offer some options below.
One useful approach is to think about the megatrends: What is happening in the world and in your business environment? For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers identifies the following megatrends: changing demographics and social change; global shifts in economic power; technology breakthroughs; climate change and resource scarcity; and urbanization. You can read through
their material on these (www.pwc.com/gx/en/
issues/megatrends.html is a good place to start), or pick some other views of global megatrends and read up on what each is about. Then go through each one and discuss with your team what the threats and opportunities from each megatrend might be.
Some of these trends strike me as having profound implications for lubes and additives businesses. For example, with regard to changing demographics, Millennials in the U.S. seem to be moving to cities and using rideshare systems and postponing buying cars, while the fastest-growing category of drivers is age 70 and over. While this is likely a threat, it could also be an opportunity.
Demographic changes in the U.S. are also evident with the growing Hispanic population and womens control of the family budget. Your team may want to list the various risks and opportunities that arise overall from demographics and social change.
Technology is another area that may benefit from some reflection. How could your company use technology to link more effectively with your customers, suppliers or communities? You may want to categorize the threats and opportunities as short-term and long-term, then classify each one as high, medium or low in order to aid in your ultimate process of selection and action. Of course, it is OK to choose not to act on any of the threats or opportunities you identify, if none of them are particularly compelling or significant compared to what is already on your plate.
Another technique for big-picture thinking is to reflect on the stakeholders you have and your relationships with them. Think about the stakeholders of community, customers, employees, shareholders/owners/financiers and suppliers. Which if any of these stakeholder relationships is not as sound as it could be? What are the trends or issues in each of these stakeholder areas – are you addressing these? Perhaps you will find that one or another of these areas is somewhat taken for granted, and you may have to do some research to explore the relationship status.
Another big-picture tool is to reflect on key business drivers: cash, profit, assets, growth and people. Some or all of these are already on your radar screen, but it is useful to take stock and determine whether each is healthy and competitive. If not, what actions are being taken to address the situation? Do you have long-term plans for these areas?
For example, projects relating to assets often take years to accomplish, so you really need to look out further in time to ensure your growth plans wont be limited by your asset capabilities. This is particularly challenging in the lubricants business, as the overall market is at best a low-growth one. How is your company addressing the growth challenge over the next five years?
A particularly useful approach is to talk to your customers and suppliers. What are they talking about? Are you tuned into these issues, too? For example, if the customers are all talking about supply risks, maybe they are seeing a long-term issue that you have missed. On the other hand, if they are reducing staff and inventory, perhaps they are predicting a recessionary period or reacting to their own loss of market share. You may want to examine the level of concentration of your business with that particular customer.
It also pays to keep an eye on competitor-published information such as news releases, websites, collateral materials and the like. You may want to engage the customer or supplier at a higher level, to get a more elevated perspective than you may usually get when calling on them at your peer level. It also helps to ask a lot of open-ended questions such as What issues in the marketplace are most concerning you right now? Over the next five years? What are your major corporate initiatives? What two or three things could we as a supplier (or customer) do to grow value to you over the next five years?
The key to big-picture thinking is to get away from everyday tasks, put aside current work plans and move away from the short term. Open up to the bigger possibilities and issues that may already be out there, or that are coming soon.
Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (908) 400-5210.