Seeing Around Corners: How to spot inflection points before they happen
Author: Rita McGrath (2019)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
Reviewed by: Gayatri Krishnamurthy

James Dean was a heartthrob Hollywood star and his iconic image remains cemented 64 years after his death. This “Rebel Without a Cause” actor has been cast in a new film and the filmmakers say that a computer-generated Dean will play a co-starring role in the upcoming production. If I were a young actor, I would be terrified at this unexpected competitor. The question is whether I could have seen this coming. Some help maybe on its way for figuring out such challenges of the future.

Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, New York, a strategy and innovation thoght leader to Fortune 100o and a best selling author has some pointers for us. Her previous book “The End of Competitive advantage” had a premise considered to be path breaking for the disruptive era we are in. Building on from that new strategy playbook, her latest best seller, Seeing Around Corners, outlines many examples and narratives which show that there may be massive changes hiding just around the corner behind walls and culverts.

The book seeks to put the spotlight on paradigmatic shifts in the business landscape.  These can either lead to devastating consequences or provide opportunities. She contends that only those who can spot inflection points before others do can be in a position to succeed. It represents a new approach to managing in this constantly changing world where time periods in which these changes take place are getting increasingly compressed.

That Rita is a master strategist is very evident form the numerous examples which are related to building her framework. These examples also happen to be very appropriate. In addition, it feels like she has adapted The Aristotelian Triptych to the written form. She tells us what she is setting out to tell. Tells it and does it very well. Then in a beautiful summary, encapsulates what she captured in many pages. Even the proverbial busy “middle manager” can find time to read these and benefit from them.

It is an unusual combination of scholarly research, practical examples and usable toolkits. While it was not possible to read it in one sitting like an Agatha Christie Whodunnit, I found it an easy read. To understand it, I had to read them again, especially to connect the different chapters together. It is a book that spoke directly to me instead of being couched in “Management Speak”.

The book has numerous case studies and illustrations in each of the chapters. They cover big corporations and small businesses, and contain quotes from both people who could see around the corners and those who could not. I In fact, they form the core of the book. They make the central theme easy to comprehend.

The chapter I could most resonate with was the one on “Early Warning” where the current state of higher education institutions is elaborately dealt with. This is one chapter particularly relevant to countries like Sri Lanka where unduly high premium is placed on degrees and the rating of the degree provider. This has put tremendous pressure on both parents and students financially and psychologically. A Businessworld survey found that a whopping 86% + of primary school children and 95% of higher secondary children attend coaching classes.   This when degrees may become superfluous. Parents too need to “see around the corner”!

If you are an independent consultant like me, you may do what many mystery novel readers secretly do which is to sneak a peek at the last pages. I found the last chapter (Chapter 9) of Seeing Around Corners to be a mini self-help book.  I found that extrapolating that to the organisation helped me connect to it and understand the importance of knowing this even if I were to be two levels below the C-Suite.

As an Asian residing in Asia, I would have liked some more flavour which was local to me. I am happy that there are many examples of cases based outside the US. The fact that the book has emerged from the author’s personal observations and learning makes it very authentic to me. I started reading this book a month ago. I have gone back to a few times already. If you are like me, I suggest that you pick up a hard copy of this book. Me and some millennial friends who are three decades apart found our personal insights in this book.