by Simone Kaplan

Great Leaders Break New Ground

May 01, 20026 mins
IT Leadership

There is no greater challenge for a leader than breaking new ground. Whether it’s in R&D projects, starting or acquiring new businesses, developing new partnerships or tackling new markets, the combination of high uncertainty, potentially hostile forces and unknown returns all make for an intense mix. But you won’t discover that hidden gold mine by staying in familiar territory. It’s a jungle out there, and the people who learn to get through it and conquer the territory are some of the greatest leaders among us.

My personality and career path have frequently put me in the position of breaking new ground, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. Here’s the best of what I’ve learned over the years, both on the front lines and in the executive suite.

Envision the Destination

Long before you see the new ground, all you can do is imagine it, and that’s the first and most important step. Call it vision or inspiration, but the clearer it is, the more passionate and compelling you are about it, the more likely you are to get there.

Learn the territory and set direction. The ground you’re searching for may be new, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get valuable intelligence early on. You can learn about the territory surrounding it, whether anyone has visited before and who else might be interested. Be sure to look at the macro and micro climates that will affect you. Critical choices will depend on knowing as much as you can.

Plan ahead?or plan to fail. Force yourself to anticipate, look ahead and prepare. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll get it wrong. If you’re right, you’ll be ready. Accept that you may need to change your plan four or five times before you get it right.

Choose the right people. It can be a small or large effort, into hostile or peaceful territory, under pressure or focused on the long term. But the constant that determines success or failure is the attitude and quality of your team. If you’ve got a core of handpicked, competent and committed people, your odds of success go up. If you don’t, a negative outcome is almost predetermined.

Think big enough. Small territories are not only easily washed out, they’re unsustainable and easy to take over. From the very beginning, you’ve got to be thinking about the manageable territory you want to work and be planning to scale up to it. Scaling is very difficult, and the need for speed adds to the degree of difficulty. It affects your choice of people and tools as well as your need for resources. There is no magic formula for choosing the right size, but it never hurts to find out how big your competitors are and make your first goal getting to their size.

Define the value. You may be after gold, thinking that its value is a certainty. But only the market makes it so, and the market can change quickly. If you’re looking for a new material altogether, then be prepared for a tough slog in convincing people of its worth. You’ll need a working example for which an objective third party can independently verify meaningful, bottom-line net benefit.

Expect some dry holes. Very few are lucky enough to find a vein of ore, break ground and tap into pure material right away. Some of the biggest gushers came from areas that others thought were worthless because they didn’t drill enough holes. You’ve got to be able to tolerate setbacks. It took the founders of Intel dozens of rejections before they got their first capital investment.

Watch your back. Sometimes you can break new ground in secret. But in general, there’s always someone watching for the payoff?to steal it if you succeed and to point to you if there’s a failure. So watch your back, and have others watch it for you too.

Stake Your Claim

Once you’ve found a place with promise, you’ve not only got to mine it, you’ve got to protect it at the same time.

Know your extraction strategy. You may have a small vein that is easy to access quickly or a deep, large vein that takes more investment and time to exploit. Whether you learn this early through analysis or only through actual digging, it will determine your overall effectiveness.

Be quiet. For a patent, trademark, publication or other means of staking a claim, the general rule is that as soon as you’ve found something worthwhile, make your claim quickly. But do it quietly. Unless you’re in the upward swing of a dotcomlike economic bubble, creating buzz doesn’t do anything except alert potential predators. The process of protecting your claim can also push your thinking and enhance innovation. In my most recent commercial venture, formulating a good patent application?where quality is measured by your ability to teach another professional how to build what you’ve invented?pushed us to a whole new level of quality in our product design.

Know your neighbors. Once you find a place with some value, you’ll need to quickly assess the neighborhood. The people and companies closest to the space you occupy will be the ones you’ll have to coexist with, ally with or fend off. Watch out for partners of convenience. Better to choose a partner once you’ve really determined what it is you’re going to do.

Bank your winnings. As you achieve victories and recover resources, bank your winnings and create a safety net. Don’t count on hitting any of your targets precisely. Make sure you’re prepared so that if things slow down or unexpected events occur, you aren’t forced to give up your claim.

Take it step-by-step. Remember that breaking new and valuable ground combines daring thinking with diligent, disciplined, step-by-step execution. Manage your risks down. Take opportunities that come along. But stay focused on what you’re doing now and what your next step will be. Too much focus ahead or too much hindsight, and you may trip and fall.

Know when to stand your ground. If you’re lucky enough to develop a new territory, you won’t be lonely for long. Others will beg, borrow, copy or steal to get into your space. You’ll have to decide whether to fight or move on.

The rewards of breaking new ground are generally uncertain, but the risks are guaranteed. So as a leader, identify the mistakes others have made. Find your central purpose so that you’re not disturbed by the ups and downs of the environment. And find your colleagues. The more you reach out and get resources and people involved, the more likely you are to lead your way into your own little gold rush.