Harnessing the Power of Inflection Points
Why recognizing and capitalizing on moments when a need for change becomes evident can make or break a company.
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Have you ever reflected on a missed opportunity and wished you could travel back in time? Have you asked yourself questions like, "Why didn't I see it back then?" or "How can I avoid that mistake again?"
The pain of fumbled possibility, in my experience, stems from unseen inflection points — crucial moments that necessitate movement in a new direction. In order to succeed, it's vital that you as a leader, along with your team, learn to recognize them before it's too late.
What exactly are inflection points?
From the moment your company and brand are born, a series of events will ultimately determine their success. At every juncture where change is imminent, there is a point when that need for change becomes evident. These are inflection points. In business, they are primarily focused on growth, scale and, sometimes, complete reinvention. These points necessitate movement, and different circumstances may prompt movement in different directions — forwards, backwards, even out of a market or into a new market entirely — and a vast number of these movement triggers are about relevance.
There are some common inflection points we see with our clients: market change or newness in market/product, identity change, world event, crisis, rapid growth, competition, operating in a new location, organizational change, leadership change, customer or audience change, current employee shift or financial event.
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Let's look at some real-world examples of companies dealing with common inflection points:
• Brands that might need to reinvent themselves (Disney, USPS, Victoria Secret)
• Brands in danger of losing their audiences or customers (Coca Cola, Meta, Yelp)
• Brands in industries that need to catch up (Bon Appetit, Teen Vogue, FedEx)
• Brands with the potential to shape what's next (Robinhood, Apple, Matterport)
• Brands that need to respond to the changing world (Ticketmaster, Airbnb, Uber)
• Sectors trying to legitimize new technologies (self-driving cars, cannabis, VR)
While each trigger may be different, the need for movement is universal.
How to spot inflection points
Inflection points come in many different shapes and sizes, and there are both internal and external factors in considering them. The key task is spotting them before they happen, and the key to doing that is simple: listen.
Hubris is often the reason for missed opportunities — pride can be blinding — so, even when everything is going great, remember to ask yourself, "What am I missing? What's next?" Even when every team member is smiling, ask, "Is this sustainable?" Because, as soon as you feel comfortable, you're in trouble.
As leaders, it can be easy to turn on autopilot and fly without regard for failure, as optimism is sometimes overwhelming. So, how can you avoid blind positivity? Some of the most influential leaders in history have created their own tripwires — built-in mechanisms that force them to stop and take stock. These are effective tools for spotting change before it happens. Ask yourself, "Which one thing will tell us that we need to stop and reassess? How will we know when we need to change, regardless of the work and energy we've already put in?"
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You've identified an inflection point, so what now?
Typically, an inflection point means one of two things: breaking in or breaking out. When doing the latter, you're moving away from a current state. When breaking in, you're moving into a new state you've identified as preferable. Once you've determined whether you are moving toward something or away from it, you need to dig deeper.
My team approaches inflection points using a "beat failure" methodology — essentially, we look for the things that could make us fail. Gaining a better perspective on failure makes it much easier to identify risks and develop the best strategies for action. When faced with an inflection point, this makes all the difference in the world. Your response to change, not change itself, impacts your company. Are you going to stay ahead of the game? How might you fail?
To identify potential causes of failure during inflection points, reach out to everyone involved. Ask team members, stakeholders and customers, "How do you see us failing?" Not only does that help to identify possible failure factors at various levels, but it also keeps key players involved and engaged.
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Acting in the moment
Inflection points are fleeting, so immediate engagement is required. If you don't move quickly, the moment will pass, and you will be left to deal with the fallout. The only way to stay ahead of change is to anticipate the inflection points before they happen. Listen carefully to the hum of your internal and external business dialogue and build your strategy on the pre-established failure points. Keep adapting and changing. Set up ways to listen so that you can take action when needed.
It's vital to understand that there are no "wonderkids" among business leaders. A person's first idea might be what catapults him or her to star-CEO status, but it's the ability to listen, identify points of necessary change and constantly adapt that maintains his or her success. A great idea can propel you in the beginning, but your approach to inflection points will allow you to thrive.