Creative Leadership

By The Time You See the Threat, It’s Already Too Late

You can take this to the bank: Far too many ideas, organizations, and personal careers fail because they didn’t see the threats coming in time. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that big food brands are in trouble. “For over a century, brands such as Kellogg’s cereal, Campbell ’s soup and Aunt Jemima pancake mix filled pantries of American households that wanted safe, affordable and convenient food. They provided companies with reliable revenue growth from grocery shelves, and there was little reason to mess with that formula.

Today, these giants are struggling with competition that is corroding business from both ends. High-end consumers are shifting toward fresher items with fewer processed ingredients while cost-conscious shoppers are buying inexpensive store brands. The makers of staples including Chef Boyardee canned pasta and Hamburger Helper meal kits failed to spot the threat and didn’t innovate in time.”

It’s worth repeating that they “failed to spot the threat and didn’t innovate in time.” The lists of companies, nonprofits, and personal careers that description applies to are endless: Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders Books, Blackberry, and plenty of nonprofits and ministry organizations follow close behind. And you probably know many people who had wonderful careers at one time, but today are out of work, or have been forced to adapt to a lower-paying job – all because they didn’t see the changes on the horizon.

Never forget: Everything changes. Don’t let your current success distract you from the bullet coming your way.

But even for the most observant, threats aren’t always obvious. How do you stay alert so you’re not caught by surprise when the change comes?

1) Stay humble. I have a friend who was a successful TV producer once, but he used that position to embarrass and humiliate other producers. He took every opportunity to promote himself above others and created many enemies. When his program wasn’t renewed and he was finally fired, no one would return his calls. He had spent too many years alienating the very people who could have helped him most. No matter how successful you may be now, use that to build bridges and relationships both inside and outside your industry. One day you’ll need them.

2) Spend time with people who do things differently. If you work at a church, spend time with people who lead different types of churches. Whatever your career, spend time with people who do it differently. This is especially critical if you’re currently successful, because once you start thinking your way of doing things is the only way, you’re already in trouble.

3) Study the culture. Understand cultural trends. Know what’s happening in politics, business, education, and media. Good or bad, know the WHY of what’s happening out there.

4) Always be experimenting. Failure is not final, and you’ll never know what’s coming if you’re not poking around and trying new things.

5) Surround yourself with people who are thinking ahead of you. One of the smartest things I do at our company Cooke Media Group is to surround myself with producers, filmmakers, and other creative people who are young, know how the next generation thinks, and aren’t afraid to push boundaries. The older I get, the more I need an infusion of innovation and original thinking.

6) Finally – draw from a deeper well. Read old books. Find out what brilliant minds 100 or even 1,000 years ago were thinking. Study classic movies, read great novels, study the finest art. Current business books are great, but that’s a very shallow pond. Get deeper, and never forget the quote from Edmund Burke: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Staying ahead of the bullet is a lifelong challenge. What are other principles you use to keep ahead of the change?

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  1. Love to hear more of your thoughts on point 3 – the church seems to get blind sided on a regular basis by new social realities that it should have seen coming. How can we get better at comprehending the underlying issues so we can articulate redemptive and not reactive responses?

      1. I wonder if Barth would have liked a split-screen of a Bible passage on one side, and Google News on the other?

  2. This is so true. The Kansas City Star built a ginormous printing plant in a gorgeous glass covered building. Right after that was complete, they laid off a bunch of editorial staff. Some of these staffers were friends of mine. I thought it was ironic that the company spent millions on this beautiful looking facility while letting go of some of their best minds in journalism. I’ve had to dramatically restructure my skill set for the digital world which has paid off. I believe you have to be flexible and open to constantly learning new skills. I taught myself HTML and how to build a web site. The last couple of years I’ve taught myself how to host a successful online broadcast on Facebook or Periscope. If you’re not willing to learn, experiment and talk to people who are better then you at a marketable skill, you might as well stop what you’re doing. Tomorrow night I’m hosting a broadcast with a 19-year-old who is killing it on Instagram. He manages several Instagram accounts for a mega church in Tulsa and has seen results. We need to pay attention and welcome those who are younger then us to teach us. So humility and being teachable is a must to stay current.

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