I had an interesting session with the collaboration group meeting of Brentnall’s accountants this week. They are a loose collaboration of accounting firms that meet twice a year to share approaches and think about what they might do differently. The first part of our session was practical future thinking and the second on new business models for accountancy firms.
As part of the conversation we discussed the issue of environmental scanning and how to manage it as it can suck away huge amounts of time. One attendee asked me over lunch how I manage it and my response was only half jokingly “badly”. I love what I do – thinking about interesting things and interacting with smart people on what it all means and how they can make a difference in their organisations and communities. The downside is that it is easy to disappear down rabbit holes of interesting “stuff”
We have a very simple set of rules that we look to apply as a series of questions:
What is your level of need for scanning for future change?
This is largely determined by the sort of organisation and sector you are involved in. If you are in a fast moving and connected area then your need is higher than those that are in slower moving sectors (although we now have more of the former and less of the latter).
What is your current level of activity?
A quick benchmark inventory of what an organisation is doing formally and informally.
What is the value from your scanning activities and should it be adjusted upwards or downwards?
This looks both at value adding and risk management and comes down to execution. Environmental scanning should be treated like any other resource allocation process in an organisation. If you are doing lots of it and not acting on it you are actually worse off than if you are not doing it. If you are not doing very much how exposed are you? You should seek to align the value from the activity with the amount of time and resources spent on it.
Then you need to design a process which takes into account how wide you should scan, and your own organisation blind spots, group think, etc.
In our own business I spend 2-3 hours every day on scanning and thinking process, largely fuelled by social media sources. It is my view that this is aligned to our value creating process because:
- It feeds into my presentation preparation process. I often have 10-15 presentations in preparation on the go at one time with varying time frames. each of them has a basic narrative structure in them and as I scan I clip ideas, images, etc into each of them in our Evernote database for presentation preparation later on.
- It feeds into our communication channels of Tumblr, Twitter, Newsletter, website, etc.
- As part of our value offers to clients we often provide twice weekly updates from our scanning post presentation or workshop.
- Our attitude is that we should be improving the skill levels of clients and therefore we always need to be thinking about what the next thing might be and creating new approaches and frameworks to work with them at the next level.
In terms of controlling my time and my own blind spots a few things I do are:
- Try and have a routine in the early morning that is time limited. Similar to the process I use for email – primarily trying to process email for 30 minutes at a time for example.
- Using Evernote as a “read it later service” by clipping interesting stuff into a new clippings notebook that I review later in a specific time.
- Using a limited Twitter list as a major source of information and views from a range of interesting people. You can see this list at https://twitter.com/futuristpaul/my-perspectives-list. The list has 43 members and I almost religiously scan it every day twice a day. I have a rule that if I want to add someone to it then someone else has to drop off so the time it takes to review the tweets and links is limited.
- I have a similar list on Tumblr and try to include a few people that I disagree with and/or make me feel uncomfortable to keep challenging myself on my rule of “strong views weakly held”.
- I try and allocate a quiet reading time/contemplation period every day as I feel that my habits like many people in this modern world are to have screens open, earphones in, etc at all times. I think that the quite time where we can make connections and not have our minds full is an absolute requirements for innovation and creativity. I find that drawing and writing out helps this and love having a whole wall of my office covered in clear whiteboard paint for that purpose. Swimming and bike riding for triathlon training helps with the “clear space” as well.
- For serendipity I try and dip into the Twitter stream of all the people I follow for 5 minutes twice a day. I follow 1006 people on Twitter and clearly cannot see all that is going on there. I have it arranged on TweetDeck and sometimes it rolls past like a poker machine but I value those “chance encounters”
Of course these are a loose set of principles and good intentions and are disrupted often. For example in the next 7 working days I have 5 presentations, 8 flights and 3 other clients engagements. Modern technology limits the disruption during those sorts of periods but I need to get better with going with the flow.
In a fast changing, connected modern world the challenges of managing our information flow are huge. Hopefully sharing some of my attitudes and habits might help some of you and I would be interested in your methods.