Jobs and the Future of Work

Here's how to scan for missing skills within your team

A work team gathered around a table.

All teams need people who are looking out for potential problems. Image: Unsplash/Andreea Avramescu

Anna Oakes
Editor, Quartz
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  • ‘Organizational awareness’ is the ability of a company and its employees to honestly assess their own potential and limitations – it’s key to helping manage sudden crises.
  • Learning how to 'scan' can improve a company's organizational awareness, and every team should have scanners who are looking out for potential pitfalls.
  • Here are four key ways to start scanning.

The world has learned plenty of lessons from its pandemic, but one’s clear: crisis can hit anytime. To be ready for the next, we need systems in place, especially in our own teams, groups, and companies. Organizational awareness—a company and its employees’ ability to see itself honestly, own its potential, and address its limitations—helps us be capable of building those systems. And when we strengthen that awareness, we can better navigate times of volatility.

One way to do that: scanning, an idea put forward by authors Erica H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten in their book The Prepared Leader. James, dean of The Wharton School, and Wooten, president of Simmons University, look to migrating animals for a key lesson in preparedness. “Scanning the environment, seeing the signs, interpreting cues, and making sense of them is something so completely innate in nature,” they write, “that it prompts the question: why do human beings so frequently fail to go higher?”

There are plenty of limitations. “Our natural tendency to focus on the present rather than the future and to cling to first impressions can make this challenging,” they tell Quartz. But luckily, they have plenty of advice on strengthening this skill. James and Wooten suggest four key ways for us to start scanning—and use it to be ready for when the unexpected hits.

1. Become known as the scanner

“Every team needs a couple of scanners who are constantly looking at the environment and sense-making up that next crisis, and it’s a skillset we need to teach,” said Wooten in an interview with Brené Brown. Being able to scan your environment is key to achieving short and long-term goals, let alone ones amid rapid change.

To build your reputation as a scanner, try two tactics from James and Wooten:

  • Spot the signs: At least quarterly, reflect on what’s happened and what might be coming. You may want to conduct a SWOT analysis, where you list the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats ahead for your team. In another option, you can track data to a set of key indicators to watch over time.
  • Prepare for what’s coming: Create structure around discussing, predicting, and planning for how your team will handle specific scenarios, from the need to lay off employees or respond to political crisis. These draft plans will help minimize the uncertainty that can distract the organization and its employees.

2. Start sense-making

Many grew up in a time where specialists held power, and the deeper you went in your expertise, the more valuable you were. But in a specialized world, it’s generalists who hold a unique skill: those with a broad view help stabilize strategy and routine during times of turmoil.

By widening your view, you can strengthen the way you make sense of it. To start:

  • See the bigger picture: Put systems, protocols, and resources in place to look at the micro and macro view. SHRM suggests considering the following when scanning externally: look around at the current trends, competition, technology, customers, economy, labor supply, and legislation.
  • Have a broad vision and understanding: Read various publications to gain a comprehensive perspective—and not just in your industry. Listen to the voices of colleagues and customers for direction through surveys and conversations, and create a dialogue to start on creative solutions.

3. Leverage diverse perspectives

With all the talk about listening to your employees, most companies struggle to find the right cadence and approach—and too often, they listen to the same people. But you won’t simply need other perspectives: you’ll need a diversity of them, representing different backgrounds, functions, and approaches.

Consider these two ways to get and use that range of views:

  • Prioritize the flow of information: Make sure people can share up and down in your team; research finds it’s just as crucial for employees to seek out the information they need as it is for organizations to keep their people informed. It takes both the employer and the employee sharing information freely, without fear of retribution.
  • Empower and incentivize employees to share critical insight: Learn and create a learning orientation in your team, group, or company. If you want your employees to share their perspectives, companies must create a system to collect and use them, including rewarding those who bring their expertise forward.
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4. Learn your lessons well

The lack of time and capacity inside organizations is a big part of why teams don’t consider what just happened before moving on to what’s next. But to not repeat the same mistakes over again and ideally enhance the effort and impact it takes to achieve our goals, we have to.

Try two steps for learnings, as James and Wooten write them:

  • Draw from past experiences: Some organizations dissect what’s happened in failure forums to share and learn from what didn’t go well. You can also use post-mortems to take what they’ve learned and apply it to what’s next.
  • Apply those to improve processes: The prepared leader learns and helps build a learning culture, but they must have effective systems. Set up a feedback system to take what you’ve learned and convert it into a process. When changes are made, big or small, share them, so your teams see progress and are motivated for more.

The big takeaway

“The ability to effectively scan the environment for threats is a key component that helps leaders anticipate, and in some cases, prevent a crisis,” James and Wooten say. But it’s also useful for all of us: to become more aware in our own work, prep for change, and be ready to meet what’s next.

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