We all know why leap years exist, right? Our calendars get out of synch with the solar system so we must periodically get our human calendars back on track with the celestial ones. In other words, February 29th is all about correcting drift. Without those corrections, things become more and more out of synch. Not a bad metaphor for work, life, and leadership.
We live in a world of uncertainty. Life's a storm for most people, most companies, and most governments. Without having an anchor in the right harbor, drift happens for all. Just look at Kodak in the past few months leading up to leap year 2012. For almost a century it had reaped monopoly-like profits. But the Kodak ship ultimately drifted so far away from a changing market that no leap year could save it. Attempted course corrections came, but too little and too late. In the end, the disruptive company, think the Brownie camera creator of 1900, became the disrupted company one hundred and twelve years later. Totally upended.
Just how does drift happen? Easier than we all think (and Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma is one of the best books around on leadership drift). So here's one simple metric you might consider to assess your personal leadership "drift." Leaders drift the moment their "in the office" time exceeds their "out of the office" time. When this "leadership drift ratio" exceeds 2:1, watch out. It's a great indicator that a leader is becoming increasingly disconnected with customers. The solution is moving the chair away from the desk, standing up, and walking out of the "drift inducing" cocoon of an executive office.
Instead, get out into the world. Make your Innovator's DNA come alive. First, observe the people around you outside of your office. Observe the people using your products and services. Observe the environmental consequences of your company's actions. Pay attention. Second, network with people who don't look, think, act, or dress like you. Talking with opposites inevitably sparks new ideas, new insights, and ultimately corrects a course, individually or societally. Third, experiment with the world by personally trying out new things, taking stuff apart (like your own products), or rapidly prototyping a new version of what you already make. Finally, ask more questions. Question the world with inquiries that provoke the status quo, that get under the hood of a situation, that open up unexpected new directions that never emerged before. "Question the unquestionable" and see what kind of drift surfaces. Then, course correct and keep the ship from sinking.
Sound too simple to be true? Maybe it is. But our research on the most innovative leaders of the most innovative companies suggests otherwise. Take today's most valuable company, Apple. With Steve Jobs at the helm, the only drift that occurred was largely an upward rising stock price. What role did he play? He got out of the office. Often. If the average innovative CEO of a highly innovative company spends four months of every year actively seeking ideas for new products, services, and businesses, then Steve Jobs spent at least 18 years of his life doing just that. Essentially, he put lots of energy into catching drift before it caught Apple.
We can do the same in our personal and professional lives. Look around. Right now. Where are you sitting? In your office? If so, get out. Give yourself a 15-minute mini-vacation to observe, network, experiment, and question the world. It just might put some new meaning into thinking outside the box by getting out of the box. It's worth a try because you never quite know what drift you might see and what course corrections you could take to make the next four years even better.
Most of all, journey well until leap year 2016!
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 2/29/2012.