Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen

Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen


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The first prescriptive, innovative guide to seeing inflection points before they happen—and how to harness these disruptive influences to give your company a strategic advantage.

Paradigmatic shifts in the business landscape, known as inflection points, can either create new, entrepreneurial opportunities (see Amazon and Netflix) or they can lead to devastating consequences (e.g., Blockbuster and Toys R Us). Only those leaders who can “see around corners”–that is, spot the disruptive inflection points developing before they hit–are poised to succeed in this market.

Columbia Business School Professor and corporate consultant Rita McGrath contends that inflection points, though they may seem sudden, are not random. Every seemingly overnight shift is the final stage of a process that has been subtly building for some time. Armed with the right strategies and tools, smart businesses can see these inflection points coming and use them to gain a competitive advantage. Seeing Around Corners is the first hands-on guide to anticipating, understanding, and capitalizing on the inflection points shaping the marketplace. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780358022336
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 340,920
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

RITA McGRATH is a best-selling author, a sought-after speaker, and a longtime professor at Columbia Business School. Rita is one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth and is one of the most regularly published authors in the Harvard Business Review. She is consistently ranked among the top 10 management thinkers in the world and was ranked #1 for strategy by Thinkers50. Her most recent best-selling book is The End of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

Read an Excerpt

Snow Melts from the Edges

Christ, this guy has the fate of European democracy in his hands and he doesn’t know what to do.
—Molly Scott Cato, British member of Parliament, on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before European lawmakers, May 23, 2018
If ever there was an inflection point worth anticipating, it would surely be the change in business assumptions spawned by the dominance of social media platforms. In short order, “social” has upended marketing, turned company and customer interactions into two-way streets, given previously obscure voices a platform, and connected databases that used to be safely separated, with outcomes that nobody anticipated.
Social media—whether it be Facebook, Google, Twitter, or others—had a difficult 2018. It included the spread of “fake news,” false accounts, election and voter manipulation, the hijacking of online accounts, selling individuals’ most personal information to third parties, racial profiling, allowing the impersonation of celebrities, and targeting vulnerable populations. Google, which failed to even send an executive to represent the company at congressional hearings, is facing all kinds of regulatory and business model pushback.
As a society, we are now collectively scratching our heads at how this all came to pass.
This chapter uses the rise and ongoing struggles of Facebook and other social media platforms to illustrate the dilemma of “seeing” the real implications of unfolding inflection points. Whether you are a powerful CEO or someone far lower down the food chain, blind spots are dangerous. Toward the end of the chapter, there is a discussion of practices that facilitate, as opposed to block, the early detection of such important signals. The central idea here comes from Andy Grove’s prescient observation “When spring comes, snow melts first at the periphery, because that is where it is most exposed.”
Evidence of an emerging inflection point doesn’t present itself neatly on the conference table in the corporate boardroom. It is the people who are directly in contact with the phenomenon who usually notice changes early. It is the scientists who see where a technology is going and when it might shift. The salespeople who are talking to customers each and every day. The people on the customer service calls who are learning firsthand what’s on customers’ minds. The people who sound the alarm about something that is broken in a system. The people who have an uneasy feeling about the implications of an impending decision down the road.
These are the people—maybe you are one of them—who see it first and most clearly.

When I was young, the go-to source for important information was a reference book, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It kept its secrets about what I read in it, which sections got my attention and which didn’t, and even who I was. Those who watch over reference books, librarians, are the custodians of human knowledge embedded in the materials in their care. They have long been admonished to maintain an ethic of “facilitating, not monitoring, access to information.” Indeed, the right to privacy with regard to my utilization of library resources has been affirmed again and again in myriad court cases throughout the years. The risk of librarians being able to tell others about my personal interests was considered so great that it was actually addressed in their code of ethics.
Today, that perspective on privacy seems almost quaint. Indeed, the digital advertising business, in which firms such as Facebook and Google use what they know about their users to finely target advertisements, is huge. One estimate put the value of advertising channeled through these platforms at $88 billion in 2017. The business model underlying this vast revenue source is completely opaque to many who, data brokers argue, willingly give up their information to obtain the benefits of using these platforms for free. Most of us, however, are oblivious to the specifics of how our most personal data is being used in ways that were not economically or physically feasible before the digital revolution.
Unlocking the Secrets of Formerly Private Databases
Back in the days of before the digital revolution, information about people was stored in all kinds of places. The credit-scoring people knew about your financial transactions. The motor vehicles department knew about your driver’s license and car ownership information. The criminal justice system knew about your arrest record, were you unfortunate enough to have one. Your doctors and medical providers knew about your health, medications, and any procedures you might have had. And so forth. But imagine if some kind of über-database could know and combine all this information to create a comprehensive picture including everything about you? Guess what? Not only does that capability exist, but hundreds of organizations are actively profiting from it.

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