Reading the Business Environment

January 23, 2013

looking out crop squareSuccessfully navigating today’s turbulent job and business environment requires that you study your world, that you develop an ever more sophisticated understanding of the river, both the river about you and the river before you. You have to study the business, the organization, and your place in each. You have to look out at the water, the business market, to see its character. You need to keep in mind the option of portaging, of getting out while you can and when you should. Others can offer some insight as to your direction, but you need to find your own way.

Listen to the river, read the water. Listen to the world around you. Take the time to look downstream. Exit the river to get a better look, to scout downstream. Use various disciplines and techniques to receive the varied cues from the world around you-finance, emotional intelligence, networking, and professional associations-to help you see, to clarify your vision. Then, organize what you see. Build the capacity to construct an accurate picture from bits of data. Discuss what you see and the sense you make of it with trusted colleagues. Make predictions and note how then turn out. Develop the skill of pattern recognition.

In a world of rapid change, individuals need to learn to read the river. As the maxim goes, opportunity favors the prepared mind. So too, does the prepared mind spot danger and adjust.

On stretches without specific dangers or clear passages, one kayak trip leader would shout to the other kayakers in the group to “R&R”, meaning to read and react. Read the water as you go through the rapid and react to what you see. As a US Marine might say, ‘adapt and overcome’.

The person coming behind you may have a different experience. A yell back or a signal may help them and so deepen your working relationship, but they will have their own experience. To assist them or yourself, first you must see and understand reality and find your own passage. Your guides can only give you general directions and you can do no more for others. You must read the water, on your own, do so in light of your skills, and pick a specific course through the rapids and offer what you learned.

Yes, plans matter, even five year plans, but to paraphrase Eisenhower, ‘all plans are worthless. Good planning however is invaluable’. Study. See. Understand. Pick a direction. Adapt. Repeat. Yet, sometimes the river changes quickly and even dramatically. A tree fallen can alter the river’s flow or even make it impassable. You have to read the water, and in the moment, react to it. At every level of an organization, people need to assess and adjust, to read and to react to opportunity and to threat alike.

In business, companies perform their own SWOT analysis – Strengths and Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, in their own environment. As an individual, you should too. Data flows all around us, but we don’t often take the time to take it in, to think about what it means, to convert it to information. In looking at this data and your own work, pay attention to your own intuition. Interpret the shifting patterns for yourself. Is there something that doesn’t feel quite right? Look closer.

What opportunities and threats exist around you in your work or your industry? How will they affect your future? Do you have the right strengths to meet them? How do your weaknesses make you vulnerable?

You need to develop the practice of taking time to read your own environment and of not waiting for someone at the top of your organization to tell you what or how to see. You need to develop the skill to make sense of what you see. On the river, a rippling V and a rippling upside down V have two very different meanings. Keep a clear eye and an attentive mind. Work through scenarios and plan alternate routes. Formulate hypotheses about what you think will happen and test them. Reconsider them in the light of what unfolds. You want to know whether you had it right and why. Keep in mind: this is your path. Be a proactive participant in your own journey. Take charge of developing and then following your instincts. (For more on reading the environment, see Chapter 6 in Your Job Survival Guide.)