I spent about a year living in the Bay Area of California, a short drive from a few wonderful national parks. It was a particular highlight of this time to run at two of them regularly – Purisima and Montara. They both contained a common danger that I was very unused to as a Brit – mountain lions!

I remember the first time I saw the signs. On one side of the track: "DANGER MOUNTAIN LIONS". On the other, it said: “NO WEAPONS”. Really?! 

Although there were regular sightings most locals have never seen a mountain lion. Some of the ranch owners were troubled by them, but should I be worried about them running in these parks – "probably not…", and so I started running. During my time in these parks, I saw plenty of wildlife but never saw a lion. But the words of another runner who did resonate with how I felt: "I know they are there all the time. I know they have seen me. I have dreamed and wondered when I would see one. It was ACTUALLY happening. I was a complete mixture of joy and awe and heart-pounding nerves."

While I never saw a lion it was often at the front of my thoughts when I ran alone. What would I do if I saw one? What were my escape options – run up or down? What did I have on me? Could I get to that stick in time… I’m not saying that this preparation would have helped me to survive the encounter, I just thought about it every time I ran alone in those parks. While the impact of coming head to head with a mountain lion would have been huge, so too could twisting an ankle, running through poison oak or taking a tumble down the steep hillsides. And these things were much more likely to happen. But instead of focussing on avoiding these higher probably risks, I would find myself very aware of everything around me and achieving a sort of ‘flow’ as I ran those tracks with fantasy mountain lions playing on my mind.

The heightened senses of instinct

You’d think that the more I’d focus on searching for the lion in the bush or imagining what I’d see around the corner, the more likely I was to have an accident.  But that wasn’t what seemed to happen. Having a big exciting (and frankly scary) thing to focus on meant that my mind worked on the big picture, the long term. The rest of my body slipped into a sort of subconscious autopilot or instinct and managed to ride through the run. By embracing the longer term, uncertain future, I somehow became a better runner.

Your business instincts

Now imagine for a moment that the runner is your company and the mountain lion is a massively disruptive force. The disruptive force might kill your organisation, or it might provide incredible opportunities to grow and deliver on your Purpose. And sometimes it might be both at the same time.

You could focus 90% of your innovation efforts on the near and mid-term (as the innovation literature would suggest) and just 10% on preparing for that long term, yet uncertain future. But typically this focus is likely to be squeezed out of view entirely by those important next few steps you need to watch. You’ll be fine for a few years, but eventually, something will happen that knocks the whole company, and perhaps the whole industry off its feet.   Whilst Covid-19 is the current disruption, I challenge you to name a decade in the last century where there hasn’t been a huge economic/social/political/environmental/technological/health-related disruption. 

Incremental improvements to your business are necessary, but not the only key strategic activity. However, I would suggest that you focus on your Purpose (your long term goal) and the disruptive forces that might kill or explosively grow your business. With that mindset, you can try to identify and explore opportunities for every long term challenge which can set you up for a more profitable and sustainable future.

So what? 

In this highly uncertain world, if you want to innovate and grow proactively, don’t worry about the next step or two. Don’t worry about extrapolating forward from today. The near-term stuff will work itself out - your industry expertise, established processes, and organisational structures will carry you ably from where you are to where you need to be. But if you are responsible for the future of your business, you want to spend your time thinking beyond the horizon. You want to keep focused on what might happen, and what you might do. You need to be worried about your innovation mountain lions.

Yep, that’s what we do, we hunt for mountain lions…so what's your 'innovation' mountain lion? And do you know what you'd do if you saw it?