There is no greater challenge for a leader than breaking new ground. Whether it's R&D projects, starting or acquiring new businesses, developing new partnerships or tackling new markets, the combination of high uncertainty, potentially hostile forces and unknown returns all make for an intense mix. But you won't discover that hidden gold mine by staying in familiar territory. It's a jungle out there, and the people who learn to get through it and conquer the territory are some of the greatest leaders among us.
My personality and career path have frequently put me in the position of breaking new ground, and I've got the scars to show for it. Here's the best of what I've learned over the years, both on the front lines and in the executive suite.
Envision the Destination
Long before you see the new ground, all you can do is imagine it, and that's the first and most important step. Call it vision or inspiration, but the clearer it is, the more passionate and compelling you are about it, the more likely you are to get there.
Learn the territory and set direction. The ground you're searching for may be new, but that doesn't mean you can't get valuable intelligence early on. You can learn about the territory surrounding it, whether anyone has visited before and who else might be interested. Be sure to look at the macro and micro climates that will affect you. Critical choices will depend on knowing as much as you can.
Plan ahead - or plan to fail. Force yourself to anticipate, look ahead and prepare. The worst thing that can happen is that you'll get it wrong. If you're right, you'll be ready. Accept that you may need to change your plan four or five times before you get it right.
Choose the right people. It can be a small or a large effort, into hostile or peaceful territory, under pressure or focused on the long term. But the constant that determines success or failure is the attitude and quality of your team. If you've got a core of handpicked, competent and committed people, your odds of success go up. If you don't, a negative outcome is almost predetermined.
Think big enough. Small territories are not only easily washed out, they're unsustainable and easy to take over. From the very beginning, you've got to be thinking about the manageable territory you want to work and be planning to scale up to it. Scaling is very difficult, and the need for speed adds to the degree of difficulty. It affects your choice of people and tools as well as your need for resources. There is no magic formula for choosing the right size, but it never hurts to find out how big your competitors are and make your first goal getting to their size.
Define the value. You may be after gold, thinking that its value is a certainty. But only the market makes it so, and the market can change quickly. If you're looking for a new material altogether, then be prepared for a tough slog in convincing people of its worth. You'll need a working example for which an objective third party can independently verify meaningful, bottom-line net benefit.
Expect some dry holes. Very few are lucky enough to find a vein of ore, break ground and tap into pure material right away. Some of the biggest gushers came from areas that others thought were worthless because they didn't drill enough holes. You've got to be able to tolerate setbacks. It took the founders of Intel dozens of rejections before they got their first capital investment.
Watch your back. Sometimes you can break new ground in secret. But in general, there's always someone watching for the payoff - to steal it if you succeed and to point to you if there's a failure. So watch your back, and have others watch it for you too.
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