Seek new contexts Expand your exposure to a range of contexts to discover promising new approaches

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​You can't stick with the same workgroup approaches and expect to accelerate performance improvement. So how to go after uncovering and incorporating new insights, information, and resources? Looking to explore different contexts can spark the imagination and help create new approaches.

There are always many ways, and the way you choose should depend on the current context. You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.

—Ellen Langer1

Introduction: New tools and techniques

Doing what you’ve always done, even if you’re really good at it, probably won’t accelerate performance improvement. At best, continuing practices could yield incremental improvement; at worst, you might see performance plateaus or even declines as the tried-and-true becomes less suited to a changing context. To accelerate performance improvement, workgroups likely need new approaches, and even more so as more cases of first instance appear without proven ways to address them. Workgroups need to rapidly gain new insight, information, and resources to begin developing approaches, and they are less likely to find these within their current context—even when the group has the intent to push boundaries and break from old ways.

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Exploring a different context, whether adjacent or seemingly unrelated—along with seeing how others are approaching their own issues and opportunities to reach higher levels of performance—can yield fresh perspective on the nature of the challenge a workgroup is facing. It can help them explore their own context and performance challenges differently and avoid falling back on solutions already in place.2 More tangibly, it can expose group members to new tools and techniques.

Our assumptions tend to dictate our choices and actions. Workgroups need to be able to test, challenge, and refine hypotheses without being constrained by unexamined and potentially invalid assumptions. Trying to understand an unfamiliar context can bring to light those deeply held assumptions that are rooted in “the way we’ve always done things.” It can help group members to reframe core assumptions,3 repurpose and build off the methods of others, break existing frames, and uncover valuable new ideas. In addition, the act of changing context—and engaging with it to identify similarities and differences—is potent fuel for sparking the imagination, and for inspiring and giving shape to creative new approaches.

For example, LiveOps, a company that runs customer call center operations, took inspiration from the online game World of Warcraft, in which players create their own dashboards to track relevant statistics as a means of improving their own performance. Building from this completely different context, LiveOps gave each employee a dashboard that showed her own real-time performance across several relevant dimensions, including changes in her ranking among peers on key indicators. The personalized dashboards have helped agents understand and improve their own call effectiveness.4

In a stable environment, seeking new contexts may have been less important because each workgroup could rely on its pre-existing resources and knowledge. But as the world changes more rapidly, workgroups that look first to what they have and know within their own context may find themselves increasingly disadvantaged. Even if your own context doesn’t seem to be visibly changing, you should be relentlessly exploring other contexts to find better and better ways to achieve your outcome.

You know you need this practice when:

  • The market is changing faster than your business
  • You rarely seem to have unexpected but relevant encounters with ecosystem participants
  • The range of interactions you’re having with people and workgroups from different contexts is limited

The seek new contexts practice: What it is

Looking for new contexts means identifying the most relevant and potentially fruitful contexts to learn from and drawing insights that each workgroup can use to have more impact on its own outcome. Groups have only so much time, so be deliberate in choosing where to invest it in exploring new contexts. Contexts change at different paces, which means that the right ones may offer a window into some aspect of the workgroup’s future. A targeted approach can help identify contexts that are further ahead in some way and that have the potential to expand the group’s understanding in one of three areas:

Inputs that might matter. Identify new inputs—such as technologies, data sets, or materials— that could help the workgroup reach a higher level of performance. Is someone already using one of these inputs, providing a model from which we can learn?

Performance metrics that matter. Where is someone achieving higher levels of performance on a key performance metric (for example, customer churn rate) that matters for us? Go explore that, and try to figure out what is—and what isn’t—context-dependent.

Outcomes that matter more. At the edge, where change is occurring most rapidly and where performance requirements may be most demanding, the workgroup may discover an opportunity to achieve even more impact.

. . . and what it isn’t

A time-consuming process of exploration. Immersion can lead to serendipitous insights and connections. But few workgroups have the luxury of time to immerse themselves in a context that may or may not prove relevant. Groups should, then, aim to get better at swiftly identifying relevance and picking up insight with less exposure. Random, hoping for serendipity. This isn’t about just being open to learning or getting outside our comfort zone to see what we can see and hoping that useful insights will materialize. While that can be valuable for some individuals, workgroups should be more effective at exploring. A search for the latest shiny trend. In fast-changing contexts, not all that is new is relevant or useful. It is important to differentiate between the temporary and the enduring.Only about others—or only about the group. This is about finding connections across contexts that might drive mutual learning and even reveal opportunities to work together toward outcomes that are of mutual interest.

Your brain is designed to make meaning out of what you see and will look for patterns out of whatever information you take in through your senses.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership5

Intersections with the other eight practices

  • Frame a powerful question. The magnitude of the question propels the workgroup to seek insight from new contexts and shapes what might be important about them.
  • Commit to a shared outcome. The workgroup seeks insights that can be useful for improving the shared outcome.
  • Maximize the potential for friction. Seeking new contexts is a powerful way to discover resources beyond the workgroup. Part of the workgroup’s diversity might be the range of contexts that members have experienced.
  • Cultivate friction. Immersion in a new context can take members out of their comfort zone, challenging their assumptions and mental models in an immediate and tangible way.
  • Eliminate unproductive friction. The shared experience of a new context can create a touchstone that deepens the relationships between members and provides a tangible and neutral reference to frame disagreements.
  • Reflect more to learn faster. Reflection both in advance and after exposure to a new context can help members identify patterns and draw connections in their observations and signals in order to transform an onslaught of information into useful insights for the challenge at hand.
  • Bias toward action. The point of seeking new contexts is to draw insights that lead to and inform the next action.
  • Prioritize performance trajectory: Spending time in new contexts can help the workgroup discover new approaches to pushing the boundaries of what they thought was possible for the outcome.

Putting the practice into play

A fresh context can open a window into the narrow silos of understanding and provide a new lens on the workgroup’s own work. However, the relevance of an unfamiliar context is sometimes less apparent when it appears in a typically unstructured way, through narrative accounts, field memos, news reports, anecdotes, and the collective murmurings of social media. It typically takes practice to know what contexts matter and to uncover the underlying information and draw connections that are not easily observable, finding patterns that we have not previously imagined.

The practice of seeking new contexts, then, broadly has two parts to it: first, knowing how to look around to find the most productive contexts to accelerate the group’s learning about how to have more impact; and second, knowing what to do with it—looking within to gain insight and derive actionable information from the relevant contexts.

Look around

The future is unpredictable, but it also doesn’t happen at the same time. New technologies, policies, and preferences hit certain arenas, geographies, and markets sooner than others. As a result, one way for workgroups to find a way forward is to look around.

Practically, this means that workgroups, and individual members, shouldn’t stay in their lane. Bust silos and avoid tunnel vision by connecting with others who are engaged around a similar issue but may live in other departments, organizations, or domains. At Facebook, this occurs organization-wide: Employees from different groups get pulled out of their role every 12–18 months to spend a month on special teams to work together on a particular challenge or interesting opportunity. When people return to their old groups, they tend to be more open to questioning assumptions and participate in more informal sharing of ideas and information across groups.6 It is important to bust silos everywhere—including at the periphery, not just among the usual suspects in the core functions.

As change accelerates, peripheries and edges can become more valuable because they are often moving at a faster pace. Exposure to new contexts at the periphery can shape group members’ understanding of certain conditions and inform their own work.7 They might be better able to make sense of the signals they are identifying on the frontlines and better able to identify alternative resources that might be used in unexpected ways. The practice of looking for, and engaging with, new contexts also keeps the workgroup’s own boundaries permeable, so that the group can avoid becoming its own silo and better leverage valuable ideas, skills, and resources from others.

Where should we look for context? On the one hand, looking around is about finding the performance edge that matters most to your outcome. On the other, it is about increasing the likelihood that you turn up valuable resources of which you were unaware. In either case, look for the fast-moving contexts for which the performance requirements are most demanding—this is where the future is likely already happening. Look for the tools they are creating and the inputs they are using. The point isn’t to bring those tools and models in whole but, rather, to build upon them and make your own better solution for your context.

Edges can take many forms: They can be other workgroups, enterprises, industries, technologies, or even demographic groups. Find a performance edge likely to generate insights that the workgroup can use to improve its outcome. Relevant performance edges have either achieved a high level of performance on one of the workgroup’s key metrics, are targeting a more significant opportunity for impact, or are further advanced using an input that the group believes might be important. For example, an oil-field services group that is targeting customer churn rate might look to a wireless company that has dramatically reduced customer churn. In another example, consider how, in advance of the Southwest Airlines fleet adopting fiber optics, several Southwest field techs sought out the training school to which a leading telecom sends its employees so that they could learn in context with a group that is pioneering the technology.

The relevant performance edge might also be one in which others are engaging with similar constraints. For example, a workgroup aiming to design a radically inexpensive mass-market car might look to a developing region with a vast, previously unmet demand for such products.

Knowing what to look for in a performance edge, how do we go about actually identifying a context that meets our criteria? Research and discussion—asking, “Who does it best?” or “Who has faced something similar and is succeeding?”—might help the group create a preliminary list. Accessing digital content—such as blog postings, social media outlets, and analyst reports—can be the first step in learning about potentially useful contexts. To increase the potential for getting a truly different angle on a challenge, however, it may be worthwhile to cast a wider net by tapping into group members’ social and professional networks—for example, posting a brief explanation of the issue on social media and asking for recommendations of contexts worth exploring.

Conferences and training sessions, too, can be an effective way to gain preliminary exposure to a new context and make connections for exploring it more deeply if warranted. Workgroups may discover relevant but previously unknown tools, techniques, and resources and, by seeing them in use and being among the people who use them, may gain unique insight into how to apply them to their own outcome. For example, the New York City Fire Department’s Rescue Company 1 regularly attends days-long training with fire units from around the country as well as with military and other forms of search and rescue, from marine to alpine, to learn new techniques and potentially encounter useful tools that could be redeployed in the urban rescue context.

Ultimately, finding the relevant performance edge often requires getting “out on the street,” talking with people engaged in and around the performance edge to get a better understanding of the performance or input and its relevance to the group’s outcome. Physical proximity often leads to connections, from a casual encounter at a surf shop to a formal introduction,8 that can be invaluable in terms of revealing new facets of the context and new avenues to pursue to unlock the most powerful insights.

Shape serendipitous encounters to increase the likelihood of attracting assistance from beyond the workgroup in identifying relevant contexts and drawing insights from them. While actively searching for new contexts can be valuable, great insights can also come from people and contexts not on the radar screen or in the existing database. Instead, there are ways to increase the likelihood that people from other contexts will seek you out. While shaping serendipity can be valuable for individuals, organizations, and workgroups as a means of attracting the passionate and uncovering unexpected resources, consider, specifically, how you can use serendipitous encounters to identify and explore new contexts. Think beyond organizational barriers and constraints and consider ways to further leverage people outside and across the organization, aiming to tap into their knowledge, expertise, and connections to gain exposure to new contexts without devoting the time to becoming fully immersed or proficient in those contexts.

What might this look like? It might mean establishing a presence in physical or virtual space so that others can find you. The second part of this is being as clear as possible about the metrics and potential inputs in which you are interested. Motivating others to participate through potential, thoughtful posting in these spaces can be helpful, so long as you’re transparent about what you’re doing.

But the point isn’t just to get people to come to you and say, “Here’s an idea—go for it.” Exploring new contexts is time-consuming. Workgroups need to be both effective and efficient in drawing insights from new contexts. The point is to get people to come to you and say, “Here’s an idea, this is what I know about it, this is how I think it applies to your context, and I am going to connect you with this person and take you to this place so that you can learn more.”

Part of the work, then, is identifying the talent spikes—the forums and platforms that could be most relevant to other contexts, along with the physical gathering spots, whether a surf shop or a conference or a hackerspace favored by activists—and establishing a presence, crafting questions and challenges that can engage others, and cultivating relationships from promising leads. When two executives from GE Appliances were introduced to Local Motors CEO John Rogers, they were primed to draw insights from this open-source hardware innovator that was upending traditional product development and production. A fellow GE executive with whom they’d shared their problem came across Local Motors and suggested it might be a relevant and fruitful connection. The executives had for months been thinking about—and discussing with anyone who would listen—creating some type of innovation center to rethink product development in their industry. They brought a coherent and explicit statement of the problem they were trying to solve: How can we create innovative products that the market wants while the market still wants them? When they saw what Local Motors was doing in the automotive space, they realized that the consumer for whom they were designing was a valuable input to a whole new approach. With Rogers’ guidance, they quickly learned about creating a community and using platforms and moved to rapidly develop and launch their own model for co-creating appliances. That’s how GE FirstBuild (now a Haier company) got off the ground.9

Look within

Knowing where to look for new context is only half the battle. Understanding how to delve within that context and how to extract insights and learning that the group can use to improve performance is what makes it valuable. For workgroups looking to accelerate performance, the point of seeking new contexts is to help workgroups uproot assumptions and uncover new tools and approaches, and, most importantly, gain insights that point to possible new actions.

Making effective use of exposure, however, isn’t easy. The goal is to explore the periphery without being consumed by it. Workgroups that develop practices for how they will explore new contexts may be better able to gather information and, through reflection and discussion, draw out the insights that could make an impact on the group’s outcome. Time is always a factor, and it can be tempting to divide and conquer to quickly gather information from as many different contexts as possible. A small group exploring together, however, can gather richer information and help each other make sense of what they see and experience. With practice, workgroups, like individuals, can get better at exploring and experiencing the edges.

How do you approach another context? What works—or doesn’t work—in one context may not translate into another. Look for what can be generalized but also what can’t. In the GE FirstBuild example, one key difference between contexts that workgroup members didn’t grasp at the time was that many people may be less excited about appliances than about cars. One way to begin is to put context in context. Take a step back and consider the next, larger context—the slightly larger picture. Just as a chair exists in a room, a room in a house, a house in a neighborhood, and a neighborhood in a city, context is relative. Considering how “the room fits within the house within the neighborhood” can change our perspective and may reveal previously unnoticed relationships and opportunities, both in the context we are looking at and elsewhere.

New context can be overwhelming. Our mind-set and dispositions often determine the world we encounter, including what we notice and pay attention to, and the possibilities we apprehend. Similar to how an emergency-room triage nurse makes snap decisions about who should be admitted, we often make quick judgments based on “precognitive responses,” guided by our experience as well as by the systems we have constructed in advance, that allow the brain to make rapid decisions.10 In a cognitively diverse workgroup, members will naturally notice different things and interpret them differently. The workgroup may find that being more deliberate about probing the context, however, can help to reduce the complexity and to stage their moves to balance the breadth and depth of exposure.

Workgroups won’t have the time or resources to become proficient and fully immersed in all contexts of interest; the goal of probing is to get enough information for the next move. Probing balances the immersive richness of physical with the efficiency of virtual, moving from reading a web page to having a phone call to meeting in person to taking a group to visit off-site, stopping at whichever level is appropriate for the value gained. Each nugget of insight can potentially help to develop a new lens and shape the next move. For example, at New York agency sparks & honey, the culture briefing workgroup had been noticing a trend around different milk sources. These "micro trends" were showing up in a range of places including social media discussions, product testing in local markets, and localized menu innovations. After tracking related signals and connecting those to existing "macro trends" in the agency's trend taxonomy, the group concluded there might be something to it. The entire workgroup visited, and eventually immersed themselves in, a tasting that included milk from several different animals, including camels.

Different levels of looking outside-in

Another approach to probing is to assign a different aspect of context for each member to pay attention to or use as a lens (see figure 1). Sparks & honey uses the five senses as lenses but also formalizes sensitivities by “tagging” items along a spectrum from micro- to macro- to mega-trends. Alternatively, workgroups could use a system such as ethnographers’ “AEIOU” (Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, Users) observation framework, with each member going into a new situation with responsibility for just one category.11 Of course, the most important lens to use against the onslaught of information may come from the shared outcome itself. Calibrate the group’s attention to focus on what actually matters to the shared outcome. What information, if we could figure it out, would help us know our next move? What’s different and what’s comparable between the context and the outcome we are trying to achieve? Workgroup members may also find it more effective to explore and experience contexts in dyads or triads, rather than altogether, to avoid overpowering the context with their own presence.

Although it’s easy to talk about taking on new contexts in the abstract, in reality staying aware and vigilant to signals can easily morph into being overwhelmed. Certain contexts may prove very useful, and in those cases, the workgroup may want a deeper exposure, over time, gleaned from building a relationship rather than just harvesting insights in a one-off visit. Consider what the workgroup can give before it takes: Does it have new knowledge or learnings that might be beneficial to others in the new context? Ideally, the learning becomes open-ended, mutually beneficial and generative, creating a new node or set of nodes from which to gain feedback and perspective on the group’s experiments or future challenges, even if the current issue is short-lived. Workgroups that help develop others may begin fielding proposals to collaborate, creating a virtuous cycle of insights and impact. Connecting to these broader networks can provide specific subject-matter expertise where needed and can lead to additional ideas to inform the group’s current frame of thinking.12

When group members can maintain an openness to inspiration from other people, areas, and environments encountered throughout the day, the workgroup can continually collect ideas from various contexts that can be used to fuel the productive friction in service of getting better and better at problem solving in other instances.13 For example, in Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s Newbuilding & Innovation workgroup, designers decided to change the configuration of a room after staying in a hotel that made use of limited space in an interesting way: It featured a modular desk that a guest could slide out when needed but made the room feel more spacious when concealed. The unique design inspired several sliding furniture additions that Royal Caribbean made to its Quantum staterooms.

Stewart Brand’s Pace Layering model

Although workgroups will have to make trade-offs—going deeper in some areas and broader in others, depending on time and resources—it can be beneficial to focus on the fundamental. Not all contexts are changing at the same rate, and facts have different expiration dates (see figure 2). Differentiate between what is changing fast and what is currently stable, what is transient and what is enduring. Look most frequently to the contexts that are changing most rapidly—others may have valuable parallels, but if they’re moving more slowly, they’ll likely reward only intermittent check-ins.

Antibodies at work:

  • We need to keep our heads down and focus on what we do best.
  • Since no one is asking for that, why are you spending time on it?
  • Plenty is wrong about what we do today—why are you worrying about the future?
  • We’re the market leaders—others try to copy us.

Drawing insights from individual observations and the flood of information out there requires group members to listen to one another and their surroundings deeply, to recognize patterns and draw connections through discourse and reflection, and to incorporate these insights into their evolving assumptions. Paradoxically, successful exploration of new contexts designed to cope with near-term uncertainty often requires an increased focus on long-term direction. Contexts are shaped by what connects them to each other.

Questions for reflection:

  • What gets in the way of us (organizational polices, practices, silos) connecting with those from whom we can learn?
  • What will likely be relevant to our business in the future, and where can we find examples of that in action today?
  • When was the last time we encountered an unfamiliar resource that ended up providing incredible amount of value? How did we go about uncovering it?
  • How can we provide more value to the ecosystem, and how can the ecosystem provide more value to us?
  • How much time do we spend looking at the periphery versus things closer to the core? Do we have the right mix?
  • How has the periphery changed what we do? When was the last time we acted based on something found on the edge?