Eighty percent of executives say creating an “outside in” culture is a high priority for the future. Outside is where the good stuff happens. Buyers buy. Inventors invent. Competitors compete. An outward-focused organization has its eyes on the action and sees what’s happening now and what’s coming down the pipe. Equally important, it sees itself the way it really is, how it stacks up, and what futures are possible.
Most organizations are unconsciously designed precisely not to do that. I say “unconsciously” because no leader would intentionally blinker their own organization. I say “designed” because layers of decisions about how to communicate, what gets rewarded, and what information is important stack up to create an organization that spends most of its time thinking and talking about itself.
How can you know if your organization is designed to be inward? Ask people to name the three most important things the organization could do for the future. If all three of them are process, organization, or cultural changes, you might be inwardly focused. Look at the data people bring to meetings. If almost all of it is about your own performance, you might be inwardly focused. If your research mostly includes your own customers, you might be inwardly focused.
Ben Franklin once said: “three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Once an organization has turned inward, it often clings to that for dear life. In one extreme example, a prominent, well-established membership organization had seen a start-up digital insurgent out innovated them and grow to three times their size in just a few years. Alarmed, one leader commissioned a detailed study of their new competitor and how they had built a new digital model that had undermine the way they did business. The rest of the leadership not only dismissed it, they denied it, refusing to believe it was really happening. External perspective becomes threatening if it challenges a deeply held status quo.
On the other hand, we helped another client, a prominent membership organization, long mired in old ways of doing things, take a radically inclusive and transparent approach to make external perspective a lever for real change. Through an exhaustive process encompassing their entire profession, members and non-members alike, in-depth conversations with admired and like-minded organizations outside their own space, deep reflection on their competitors and similar, more successful, organizations, they came to an entirely new vision of who they needed to be and where they needed to focus. With great fear and trembling, the leadership opened themselves up to a view from outside, only to be pleasantly surprised at the clarity and alignment it bought them.
You can’t read the label while you’re sitting in the jar. Becoming intentional about turning outward as an organization could be the most strategic move you could make.