Thornton May: Reflections on inflections

Boards of directors, CEOs and politicians these days are much concerned with optics, the way things look. It's understandable. We live in a world where everything is recorded or recordable, where every gesture, physical or digital, can be analyzed and commented upon, where there is no such thing as a dead mic or a truly off-camera moment.

I am the first to admit that appearances matter a great deal. (For example, I am rarely seen not wearing a bow tie.) But being cognizant of the way things look will only get you so far. To truly accomplish things, you have to be on top of the way things really are. You can have great optics and still be clueless -- an epithet that's about as bad as it gets today.

When I say that you have to be on top of the way things really are, I mean you have to comprehend what is actually happening, why it is happening and what efficacious alternatives are available to us. Upon studying executives who never seem to be caught unawares, I have concluded that the secret to their sagacity is their true and deep understanding of the inflection points that define modern existence.

Inflection points (the term is borrowed from differential calculus) are all about change. Our field's most respected thinkers (such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Geoffrey Moore) and its most admired practitioners (the likes of Jamie Miller, Greg Simpson and Alan Kocsi at General Electric; Gary King at T-Mobile; Tomas Soderstrom at NASA JPL; and Vince Kellen at the University of Kentucky) focus on inflection points.

Former Intel Chairman Andy Grove said that an inflection point "occurs where the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new." This seems to be happening with disconcerting regularity. Every day, contemporary executives confront a series of inflection points -- situations in which received wisdom is no longer adequate or appropriate for the task at hand. Francois Hollande became the president of France on the promise of being "Mr. Normal." His record-settingly low popularity suggests that, at least in France, there is no place for normal, as The New York Times put it. That may be true everywhere.

My colleagues and I at the IT Leadership Academy are in the process of researching the efficacy with which organizations lead through inflection points. We began by asking executives a series of simple questions:

• When was the last time you used the phrase "inflection point" in a sentence?

• When was the last time you heard the phrase "inflection point" used in a sentence?

• When you hear the phrase "inflection point," what is the first thing that comes to mind?

The responses indicate that in most organizations there is not much reflection about the implications of inflection points. This is a bad thing. The deepest thinkers throughout history have understood that the defining characteristic of the human condition is change. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus counseled those who longed for a routine, predictable and never-changing world that they could not "step in the same river twice." Aristotle was a bit more straightforward, telling us, "Nothing is absolute. Nothing is permanent."

Another of the ancients, the Stoic Epictetus, provided relevant-for-today guidance when he advised his fellow Romans not to try to control what you can't control: "Seek to be in control only of what you are able." But here's the thing: Great leaders are able to imagine and hence control what is on the other side of the inflection point.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com or follow him on Twitter ( @deanitla).

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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