How Generalists Spot Global Business Trends: Q&A with Vikram Mansharamani, Global Business Expert
“The future doesn’t have to surprise you.” So says VIKRAM MANSHARAMANI, an expert on global business trends, Harvard Lecturer, author, and investor.
How can we get better at anticipating the future? I asked him when we met.
The flood of political, economic, technological, social, and market forces that bombard us every day is overwhelming and distracting. It prevents us from paying attention to what really matters, he said. He noted the usual response to this noise is to focus narrowly or turn to specialists for help. But is that the right path? Have we been blinded by focus? Has the mantra of expertise and specialization misled us? Vikram thinks the pendulum has swung too far.
Vikram offers scores of compelling real-life examples that show how the narrow focus and specialization can lead us to miss the most important signals – the ones we’re least primed to see. The advice Vikram offers is counter-intuitive. He advocates opening up to get a broader view; to "zoom out" as he calls it, and then connect the dots. He calls the logic the generalist’s approach. Breadth, Vikram argues, is as important as depth. Generalists win by paying attention to more than their area of expertise. Vikram's generalist framework for looking at the world differently and meeting disruption head-on.
I sat down with global business expert Vikram Mansharamani to discuss his approach to spotting global business trends, his teaching, and his speaking. Some interesting ideas here. I hope you enjoy his comments.
ZOOM OUT TO ANTICIPATE THE FUTURE WITH
TOP GLOBAL BUSINESS EXPERT VIKRAM MANSHARAMANI
Q&A WITH VIKRAM MANSHARMANI: GENERALISTS & TREND-SPOTTING
TD: What’s the best way to manage risk and capture opportunities in this disruptive global environment?
VM: The best way to anticipate the future is to vigorously look to perspectives other than your own. The default perspective we all have needs to be balanced with a contrarian perspective. And that means if you believe A, look at the opposite of A. If you believe in something, look for someone who believes the opposite. Read their material. So I encourage finding the devil’s advocate position and reading it with rigor. Actually, pay attention to that material. Indoctrinate that logic in your head and understand where you agree and disagree with someone who disagrees with your conclusions.
TD: And the practical end game of this is…?
VM: So often, many of us are blinded by focus. We’ve become too narrow, we’re missing the opportunities hidden in plain sight. And so one of the things to do is to step back, zoom out, if you will, and look broadly. That will help you identify opportunities as well as risks that you might not be paying attention to. So that’s really important. To take that step back and see the bigger context. To do that, you obviously need to see perspectives different than your own. That’s why I encourage, for instance, an economist, to read political information. I encourage those that are focused on politics to study sociology and perhaps education. The idea of all this is to look broader and then connect those dots you’ve been accumulating. Do that enough and you will arrive at some very interesting conclusions that conventional thinkers won't see.
TD: You told me you used the same approach during your career as a global equities investor. How so?
VM: I've visited more than 60 countries in the course of my investing career. While doing so, I made a point when in each country to meet with not just the business leaders, but also government leaders, regulators, academics, journalists, and ordinary people on the street. I think of that was actually critical to piecing together an understanding; forming my mosaic of the investment opportunity that may not have been apparent if I had just visited and saw only the financial and business community. Taking in the bigger picture helped me develop a unique perspective and identify opportunities and navigate through the crosscurrents in many risks that some of those emerging markets have.
TD: Can you give us an example of how dots got connected in that environment?
VM: What I also found was by taking this global generalist perspective to investing, I was able to identify, for instance, a Turkish bank and compare it to a British retailer as well as a Brazilian oil and gas company. Comparing those three types of investment opportunities does not naturally occur in the investment world because the emerging markets investor would focus on just Turkey and Brazil, ignoring Britain; whereas the developed market investor would ignore the emerging markets. Even within the emerging markets we've gotten so siloed that a financial analyst would not pay attention to commodities. And so crossing these silos helped me identify opportunities, as well as navigate through those risks
TD: Risk and opportunity are everywhere; you say it’s a matter of perspective?
VM: How we choose to understand, interpret, and navigate through the developments that are being constantly thrown at us is our choice. There are two lenses we can use to understand each development and the winners and losers that will result. One is to take a threat-oriented perspective, and that's one where we will be defensively oriented; we will be worried about the downside and we will be risk-focused. The alternative for many of the same developments is we can be opportunity-oriented, and that means taking a global perspective, a growth-oriented perspective; one that is looking forward to the opportunities from these developments.
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TD: Were you always a generalist?
VM: The logic of being a generalist is something that’s infused my life since the beginning of my educational career. As an undergrad I studied multiple disciplines, in grad school I studied innovation, which by itself is a multi-disciplinary topic, and even when I started teaching at Yale, I started teaching a class on financial bubbles to undergraduates with liberal arts backgrounds. My classes are filled with biology, English, history, foreign language majors as well as economics and political science and sociology majors. What that means is I've adopted a liberal arts approach to thinking about any major complex problem. That logic of being a generalist and attacking domains that were formerly attacked by specialists, infuses my thinking throughout my activities in education, speaking, and consulting.
TD: Let’s pick up on that. That leads into the idea that you don’t have to be an expert. You say the future doesn’t have to surprise us.
VM: So fundamentally this generalist message is a democratic message. I’m saying that this can be used by anyone, regardless of your educational background. You don't need to have a Ph.D.; you don't have to be an expert. Everyone can take a step back in order to better understand what is going on around them. That “zooming out” process will help people identify opportunities, as well as risks, and navigate the uncertainty that's plaguing us. Absolutely, the future doesn't have to surprise us.
TD: One of the important things you predict is the resurgence of globalization. You believe anti-globalist populism is a short term thing?
VM: I do. It's my perspective that globalization is being unfairly maligned in the current environment. The blunt reality is manufacturing output in the United States, for instance, is up over the last 10 years even though jobs are down. And that’s true broadly, not just in the U.S. What this says to me is, yes, globalization may have taken some jobs away, but the fundamental reality is technology is having a greater impact on jobs in the world environment. And so this world in which countries are now starting to say, “I don't care about the global pie, I care about my slice,” is going to be a difficult world to navigate because this closing up of borders, this de-globalization that's transpiring today, I think is a temporary phenomenon. We are blaming globalization for all the ills of this economic environment, where technology is equally important. So it is my belief that globalization, while in retreat today, will return and it will help the economic environment. It won't solve all of our problems, unfortunately, because technology marches forward and with that comes all sorts of risks and opportunities.
TD: You’re a Lecturer at Harvard; What’s your goal in the classroom?
VM: What I try to do in the classroom is to help students think differently. There are plenty of professors and lecturers and academics that will teach students what to think, my objective in the classroom is to teach students how to think. And what I think is really important in that equation is learning how to connect the dots rather than generate dots. Whereas information generation and learning methodologies of, you know, real deep scientific inquiry or economic analysis is crucial, that’s not the objective of what I try to do in the classroom. What I am trying to do is help students bring multiple lenses to bear on big complex problems.
TD: How do students respond?
VM: Usually when I have seniors in the classroom this tends to be a capstone experience for their college education. It brings together of all of their liberal arts education; they get to apply economic perspectives, political perspectives, sociological perspectives, even scientific perspectives to complex problems. And that generates that “ah-ha” moment we’re talking about, or that we’re seeking.
TD: You speak to a lot of business groups; what do you enjoy about taking your ideas outside the classroom?
VM: The part I love about speaking the most is seeing that “ah-ha” moment in the audience. You can actually see it in their eyes when they connect the dots. When they learn there are different ways to think about problems; when they see that connecting the dots generates new insights compared to generating dots. The payoff for me is seeing how excited they get when that light bulb finally goes off. One of the classes I teach at Harvard is called, Humanity and Its Challenges, and in this class what we are doing is we're bringing together multiple perspectives to attack the toughest problems this planet faces. It’s really amazing what progress can be made when smart people with different perspectives bring their expertise to bear on tough challenges. It’s an approach that has enormous potential.
TD: Does the conversation continue after the speech?
VM: After my speeches, I’m often surrounded by some members of the audience that come up with the questions that they really want to ask, but didn’t want to ask in an open forum. And what I find individuals ask most frequently is, “Vikram, what are you reading? How do you read? Where do you get the information you get, etc.” And so often what I do is guide them to looking at the fringes. I say, “Look, today’s fringe is tomorrow’s truth. So pay attention to things that may not be obviously important or directly relevant. Because the seemingly irrelevant today may be the relevant tomorrow.” And so I will give book recommendations. In fact, I’ve started putting a book recommendation in my newsletter every month. Just as I teach my students how to think in systems terms, I suggest to audiences there are different ways to think and here’s is handful of books I recommend that can help expand your options.
About Vikram Mansharamani
VIKRAM MANSHARAMANI, Ph.D., is an expert on global business trends. Vikram is a Harvard University Lecturer, investor, and author of Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst. A popular global business expert, Vikram is a frequent keynote speaker at major business conferences all over the world – showing audiences how to look at the world through multiple lenses in order to adapt to the radically disruptive political, market, economic, social, and technological forces impacting business. To watch video excerpts of speeches by Vikram Mansharamani, CLICK HERE.
About Tony D'Amelio
Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Geoff Colvin, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Vikram Mansharamani, David Meerman Scott, Bill Taylor, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.