What Is Perceptual Acuity?
Perceptual acuity is your human radar for seeing through the fog of uncertainty so you can act before others do. Only a small percentage of upcoming leaders look at their businesses from the outside in and peer over the horizon to pick up signals that could be harbingers of change. One of the earliest warnings is the emergence of a catalyst. This is a person with exceptional perceptual acuity who seizes upon a force or combination of forces — for example, linking a demographic trend with an existing technology.
Catalysts are doers who take risks based partly on fact and partly on their imagination about what could happen when forces combine in what others might later call a convergence. The catalyst, in fact, is the one who often creates the convergence.
Practice your perceptual acuity by watching for catalysts in or outside your industry, regardless of your job or organizational level. As your acuity sharpens, you’ll spot catalysts sooner and begin to see the world as they see it: full of new possibilities and opportunities.
As you develop your perceptual acuity, you will become more attuned to interesting new ideas, events, technology developments and trends. You’ll expand your capacity to see the landscape from multiple angles, discern what’s important and speculate about how you could shape it by engaging other people in this task. You’ll not only benefit from the diverse points of view but also build your team’s ability to detect change sooner and create the next bend in the road.
Train yourself to stand back from your business and its environment. In particular, look for the larger significance of anomalies, contradictions and oddities: things that depart from or challenge familiar patterns and differ from what you have known or believed. The following are some anomalies to look for:
• An accelerating trend: A trend by itself may be passive, but a change in its momentum can be,well, momentous.
• An extraordinary event: Such an event need not be business related but could be social or political.
• Potential scalability: You should be able to sketch the scenario and their outcomes, opportunities and breakthroughs quickly.
Whenever you notice an anomaly, contradiction or oddity, you need to imagine what the new landscape might be if what you’re seeing is a signal of powerful change — and how you might take advantage of the shift.
Tools to Build Perceptual Acuity
Practicing perceptual acuity will raise your value as a leader. What follows are a range of tools you can choose from to develop perceptual acuity for yourself and your organization:
- The 10-minute exercise: In every staff meeting of an hour or more, devote the first 10 minutes to learning about and discussing anomalies in the external landscape.
- Seek contrary viewpoints: Surrounding yourself with people from different industries and backgrounds, with different cognitive bandwidths and attitudes about risk-taking, helps you see the same world through different lenses.
- Occasionally dissect the past: Spend time with colleagues and look at a big external change that hit your industry or some other one sometime in the past 50 years. Dissect that change. What were its seeds, and who were the catalysts?
- Dive into the sources of risk: Management must have rhythmic, disciplined mechanisms to detect signals of risk and take appropriate action ahead of others.
- Continually build your mental map of changes in multiple industries: Warren Buffett reads some 500 transcripts of investor calls each year, in which all the presenters state their views about their company and industry and what they anticipate in the future. Buffet watches for changes across industries that might prompt him to change the resource allocation in the portfolio.
- Ask “What’s new?”: Working with executives, I get ongoing feedback on how effective this simple phrase is in stimulating new thinking, expanding the imagination and connecting various insights.
- Use outsiders to multiply your capacity to scan:Use third parties to search media across the globe and gather information on what critical topics are emerging and what anomalies are disrupting patterns.
- Watch the social scene: Pay close attention to how society is changing and what new consumer behaviors are emerging. Social issues are sometimes followed by increased scrutiny or regulation as they work their way into the political sphere.
- Be a voracious reader: Look for what surprises you. Reflect on what it might mean and for whom. Doing this with whatever you read will increase your ability to identify signals and catalysts that might create bends in the road.
Whatever tools you use to build your perceptual acuity, bear in mind that seeing the world through a wide lens is not merely an academic exercise. You need to use your observations to plot a course for your organization and steer it through the changes you detect.