By CHARLENE KOMAR STOREY
It’s a popular exhortation — “think outside the box.” But finding a solution to a problem by looking in a different direction often is easier said than done.
Perhaps that’s why those who make that leap are so admired. Take Joseph Gallieni, a French general during the First World War. In 1914, the Germans were pressing close to Paris in the First Battle of the Marne, and more French troops were badly needed at the front. Railways were clogged and other transport non-existent –- until Gallieni thought of the Paris taxis. Over a couple of days, hundreds of elegant taxis made numerous trips to the battleground, transporting some 4,000 soldiers. Paris was saved.
Thinking outside the box won’t always involve something so dramatic or historic. But it can make your operation more responsive and more successful. And it can help you find ways to stop concentrating on why something can’t be done and instead figure out how it can be accomplished.
In today’s complicated world, the best way to do this often is in a group; there’s a reason that “two heads are better than one” became a popular adage. In the business world, that group usually is the board of directors. Privately held company without a board? Consider setting up an advisory board of either outside specialists or staff members.
Whether the group comprises directors or advisors, experts advise that they spend 50 percent to 75 percent of each meeting on strategy and trends. That allows board members to change how they think and makes it more likely they’ll see innovative ways to address trends.
You might also hold an annual retreat with outside speakers, or do so two to three times a year. Unlike staff members, outsiders have permission to challenge you and your advisors without offending them.
Speakers from within the industry can talk about what one expert calls “scary things that innovators are doing.” But you should also look outside the industry, at what companies from big international banks to technology giants such as Google are doing. That can generate paradigm-shifting thoughts.
Secondarily, you need to address your tactics. Here, questions can facilitate thinking outside the box. Some you might pose include:
“If money were no object, what would you do to serve customers?”
“If younger customers members could redesign your operation, what would they do?”
Answering these what-ifs give you and your advisors permission to think outside the box, because you’re not actually making decisions.
Another approach would be for all members of your advisory board to read a book and discuss it. “What Would Google Do?” by Jeff Jarvis presents modern-day rules to manage and live by.
“A Whack on the Side of the Head” by Roger van Oech is another possibility. The author has turned it into a deck of cards, he adds, that ask such questions as, “How would a child solve this problem?” or issue orders such as “Slay this sacred cow.” These are ways to change your mid-set.
Questions generally work well to help you open up to new ways of thinking. A good one is what you would do differently if you were able to start your business all over again.
Would you have it focus more on technology? On customer loyalty? Or hire A-players only, even if that slowed staff growth?
Then ask what you have learned that is useful for the future. Take a good look at your mission statement, and try to tease out three, four or five driving elements, and ask further questions about each one.
This analysis is needed because there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the industry as a whole; each operation is unique.
It all leads to the critical question: What do you want your company to be? What matters most?
That answer must be scutinized, too. For example, if you want your company to be high in public perception, what does that mean to you?
Avoid questions that focus on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. You may address those issues at another time, but don’t force yourself into the traditional four quadrants.
The series of questions and answers helps you and your advisors identify what you want accomplished in big-picture results. That could be to go deeper into areas where you excel to garner more profits, for example. Once that’s determined, it’s time to ask, “How?”
When a plan is formulated, the board of advisors should ask a final question: “Does this plan moving forward seem reasonable and sound?”
No plan will mature instantly. It takes about three years to move a company to a new track, and an operating plan is needed for each of those years.
Most important: while a board of directors or advisors may determine the why or what, management is responsible for the how.
‘Creativity of Thought’
Today, with changes in the financial environment coming fast and furious, only the fittest in the industry will survive, and it will help to view things differently. Too many executives still keep clinging to “We’ve always done it this way.”
To survive, you must be market-driven. And that can’t be done in a few hours or days. There’s no magic bullet.
Start with a rigorous market analysis. It doesn’t matter what other lenders or check cashers do. What matters is the experience customers have become used to from all types of merchants and service providers.
To produce that kind of experience, you need to establish a marketplace of ideas and opinions, engaging staff members down to the lowest level. A particularly effective way to do that is with a research team put together from within your company.
The team must include people from all levels in the company, not just those with titles. What’s most important is that there are no shrinking violets –- all staffers must be willing and able to speak up, even if someone above them says their idea won’t work.
The team’s job is to formulate strategy to answer the big question: How do we stay relevant?
At the end, the research team culls down to the most important ideas that could drive the company into the future, then develops a whole business plan based on critical success factors, risks and potential threats. They identify four or five key strategic ideas.
At a retreat, those four or five ideas are put to teams, Oliver says. Each team debates the ideas; other groups try to shout them down.
Everyone is forced to get very involved. The goal is customer experience management.
It’s a tough process. Everyone would love for there to be an easy answer, but there isn’t. It’s a lot of hard work, facing the good, the bad and the ugly about your company.
But doing it means survival and growth in an equally tough environment.