Inflection Points
Seeing Around Corners

Inflection Points

Best-selling business strategist Rita McGrath explains how to recognize and exploit inflection points.

Rita McGrath is a worldwide expert on strategy and innovation. She’s a Columbia Business School professor, and author of the best-selling The End of Competitive Advantage, which Strategy + Business named the #1 Business Book of 2013. Thinkers50 named her one of the top 10 management thinkers.

McGrath’s thesis is that in a competitive business environment big changes don’t happen all at once. They arise, she posits, from a host of changes in technology, regulation, demographics and the political landscape. Changes challenge industry assumptions, shake up the competition and create new opportunities, McGrath says, and you need to see them coming.

The great entrepreneurs and innovators…connect emerging possibilities, deepen customer insights and explore new technologies to spark the changes that can get them – and keep them – on top.Rita McGrath

When an inflection point first appears on the horizon, it becomes the subject of massive hype, followed by a stage in which general opinion dismisses it. She argues that this may be a good time to start paying attention, exploring and investing in its possibilities.

During the third, less public, emergent stage, people take a more practical and focused approach to the inflection point. The fourth stage, maturity, begins when everyone recognizes the inflection point’s significance. Be ready to capitalize on the rapid growth that will ensue at that point by shedding redundant or obsolete practices and resources.

Also be alert when a key metric shifts or a new category emerges. McGrath suggests examining assumptions about your resource pool, capabilities, assets, rivals and stakeholders. Consider what potential shifts might happen in each category and what challenges and opportunities might emerge. Her suggestion: brainstorm responses immediately.


McGrath recommends evaluating buyers’ emotional responses to each feature of your offerings. Determine customer motivation in every interaction.

Whenever a system has a sufficient number of badly served constituents, an inflection point has fertile ground to take root.Rita McGrath

Discover your customers’ goals and frustrations, then generate a disruptive approach – utilizing this analysis – to spark your own inflection point.


McGrath wants you to investigate the major uncertainties you face and explore what success could look like, without trying to predict it. For organizational change, she understands that sufficient people within the organization must recognize when an inflection point calls for an immediate response. Hierarchical leadership alone cannot accomplish this crucial pivot.

To this end, organizational resiliency and innovation matter more than predictability and efficiency. McGrath evokes the now all-too-common exhortation to develop a corporate growth mindset and to commit to a specific notion of excellence.

The challenge is doing the transformational work required to rewire the organization…The very systems and processes that served you well pre-inflection point can be the biggest barriers when you need to transform.Rita McGrath

Build incentives that encourage teamwork and agile experimentation. Feedback must guide leadership, and meaningful feedback depends on constant communication.

McGrath articulates a common prescription for any business today, one that does not seem specific to inflection points: relinquish control to gain broader opportunities; stay open to candid ideas and arguments; and let those nearest the situation make strategic choices.

Individual Career

McGrath concludes that individuals can also benefit from adopting her recommendations for organizations.

Inflection points always represent opportunities for someone. There is no reason that shouldn’t be you.Rita McGrath

Reach beyond your comfort zone to meet diverse people and solicit feedback while remaining curious and continuing to learn. Consider how a potential inflection point might affect you personally.

Confused Structure

McGrath seems to have combined elements of a textbook, a manual for change agents, a guidebook for leadership and a primer for a general audience wrestling with the concept of inflection points for the first time. She repeats a few basic ideas in different contexts, but more detail would make this guide more than a slightly confusing general overview of the idea that inflection points exist and matter.

McGrath does not set out to provide specific, applicable strategies for responding to inflection points or methods for recognizing the scale of inflection points and how that scale might signal oncoming change. However, as her body of work makes clear, she writes well and often provides worthwhile business advice, though you may find her other books more specific and prescriptive. 

For McGrath’s more effective advice, you may want to read one of the works she co-authored with Ian MacMillan: Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity; Market Busters: 40 Strategic Moves That Drive Exceptional Business Growth; or The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews