“I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” — Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.
If I had to pick just one piece of business advice that’s become pure cliché over the past few decades, I’d select “think outside the box.” I’ve heard this so many times in business circles, I have to resist rolling my eyes when I hear it. However, the intent has merit. Although overuse has run it into the ground, the lesson remains valid: don’t let your preconceptions, habits, lack of information, and narrow-mindedness keep you from considering all possible aspects of a problem. Get outside your own mental constraints and consider all the information at your disposal, allowing yourself to see beyond your normal, limited horizon.
I hate to pick on Borders bookstores, which I still miss nearly three years after they went out of business. But their failure to acknowledge that electronic publishing really did represent the wave of the future helped kill them. Their executives couldn’t see beyond their own borders (to coin a phrase haha). Sadly, it became clear something was wrong more than a year before they declared bankruptcy: I recall going into their stores and noting that they had turned off every other fluorescent light, and customer service just didn’t seem as responsive. They’d even begun providing computers to let people look up and order books on their own. While that seemed a nice touch, when a company has to scrimp on its energy bills and customer service to survive, it’s already seen the writing on the wall. Barnes and Noble brick and mortar stores, on the other hand, still flourish, because they’ve developed their own electronic publishing branch, complete with their own e-reader, the Nook.
Blasting off the Lid
As the team lead, you require a clear view that’s not hemmed in. So you’ll take full advantage of your own knowledge and other resources, including those of your colleagues and team members, to blast off the lid or otherwise dismantle the proverbial box. Just make sure that while doing so, you don’t inadvertently create another box—or step so far outside your comfort zone you have no idea where to go from there.
Try these simple behaviors to push beyond any existing preconceived boundaries:
1. Monitor new technology. Even when you think it doesn’t impact you, constantly study technological advances and how they impact other industries. You may find a way to turn them to your favor. Consider Starbucks. Do you think of it as just a place to get a nice cup of joe? Of course not. They’ve successfully integrated product placement from other industries, especially music; they offer travel mugs, a wide variety of ground and whole bean coffees you can take home, and other similar ancillary products. They even have food now (I love the blueberries in their oatmeal). More to the point, they’ve made themselves the go-to place for people who want to wander in and read in a comfortable environment, work on their computers, or even tap into free Wi-Fi.
2. Never stop looking for new ideas. We all have our opinions of the McDonald’s restaurant corporation, but you can’t deny its enormous skills at innovation. It all began when the original McDonald brothers applied assembly line methods to hamburger production, and continued when Ray Kroc bought the company and started franchising like crazy. McDonald’s also invented the drive-through restaurant, inspired when a VP visited a drive-through bank to drop off a deposit. He thought, “Why couldn’t this work for us?” and ultimately, it did.
3. Encourage diversity. You’ll have certain work slots you have to fill with whoever fits best, but typically, the greater variety of people you have on your staff, the more likely you can survive tough times and boost innovation. Mother Nature, “red in tooth and claw,” works the same way. Even within a species, individuals vary enough that when the climate or other circumstances change, some individuals can usually survive and pass on useful genes to their descendants. Those that can’t die out.
4. Push your boundaries. Even if you never completely leave your box—after all, you have to specialize in something—constantly push against its walls and redefine its limits. Nike, the shoe manufacturer, has consistently done this over the years, producing literally hundreds of different styles for every kind of foot and activity. If nothing else, this teaches you what works and what doesn’t. They’ve also come up with the inspiring “Just Do It” advertising slogan, which encourages us all to go for it and push the envelope.
5. Focus on small changes first. If you’ve decided to break out of the box completely, then more power to you. But don’t bet the farm on one roll of the dice. Smart leaders make small tests to make sure their market—especially their core customers—approves and will follow them. When Gerber, the baby food company, tried to sell adult entrees (in baby food-style jars, no less) in the 1970s, they hit stiff resistance…and wisely gave up on the idea. Fortunately, they hadn’t overinvested in the venture, and it didn’t take long before they were back to making baby food full time. Sometimes diversifying, while logical, just doesn’t work when it steps too far beyond your typical product line.
Throwing Away the Box Altogether
I’ve written about the children’s toys Silly Putty and the Slinky before. They emerged from attempts in WW II to create an artificial rubber and a kind of shock absorber for sensitive naval instruments, respectively. Neither worked especially well for those tasks, but they did have remarkable properties. If the inventors had failed to think outside their narrow wartime uses, nothing would have become of either invention. Instead, they opened their minds to the possibilities— and made millions because of it.
You can do the same. Just consider the five tips I’ve shared here, and how they can help you emerge from your box and, ultimately, get rid of it for good.