Are you promoting ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking?

Most leaders and teams don’t seem to be good at thinking outside the box; thinking in new and different ways from the way they are accustomed to.

Even when teams are engaged in conversations about improvement and change these conversations frequently have their roots in, “What have we done to date?” “What are our current resources and capabilities?” and “How do we measure up against others?”. The end game so often seems defined by some rearrangement of the same familiar stuff. As the saying goes:

Rearranging the deck seats on the Titanic

Even though the benchmark mania has somewhat passed in corporate America, for many companies the bar seems to still be set by other companies’ levels of success. With few exceptions, there is very little courageous and independent thinking when it comes to inventing a company’s future.

But where these exceptions do exist, they are startling. I would venture to guess, for example, that Apple did not, and does not benchmark itself against anyone else. Apple’s scale of success in recent years is wholly their own. In fact, Apple has been reinventing the scale that everyone else in the industry has been trying to emulate and use.

But unfortunately, Apple is not the rule. Most businesses today approach their future from year-to-year by figuring out modest, reasonable and incremental objectives, based on past performance.

Leaders simply don’t feel comfortable promising or expecting something that they don’t know how to achieve.

Most leaders don’t know how to promise something they don’t feel they have enough control over; something that is not an easy enough extension of what they are already doing or have done in the past.

Countless business books, seminars, and coaching programs promise the much-sought-after breakthrough thinking and high-performance leaders claim to crave. But a closer look at the way most organization function reveals that despite the stated desire for new thinking and breakthroughs, there is an almost institutionalized conspiracy around not thinking outside the box.

A regional sales team of a global technology company engaged me to coach them on taking their game to the next level. This was a very disciplined, reliable and successful sales team. They had a whole routine of forecast and prospect management meetings each week for managing their weekly sales targets. They were good at it and for the most part, they achieved their weekly results. They got a lot of recognition from their superiors, both verbal and financial, and overall all sales reps were doing well. Needless to say, no one was in a hurry to change things.

However, the market was changing, technology was evolving, new competitors were entering the race and all this meant that customer needs and consumption models were shifting fast. The sales team members understood that if they didn’t adjust and adapt to the new market trends they would be at risk. However, knowing this didn’t make thinking differently any easier.

I was able to help them articulate a new strategy and agree to do things differently, but the continuous expectations and demand from above to not miss a beat in delivering the short-term results, as well as their own comfort level in continuing to do what they were good at, made it very difficult for them to change.

In most organizations, employees are incentivized, rewarded and compensated for continuing to do the same things they always do that bring short-term results. In fact, you could say that in most organizations rewards and compensation are designed to minimize risk, not to maximize new and creative thinking.

When Kennedy declared that the USA would put a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade that was a bold, out-of-the-box idea. However, Kennedy’s courageous future-based vision and strategy changed the course of history.

He did not look to the past to determine if his vision was realistic or doable. In fact, at the time of inception, it wasn’t. Instead, he marshaled his priority, energy, and resources to pursue his dream, fulfill it and prove to everyone that his vision right!

If you want to enable your people to think outside the box, promote an environment where people are encouraged, recognized and incented for taking a stand and coming up with out-of-the-box business ideas, operationalizing them, executing them and proving them right.

In addition, develop the patience in your organization to go through the inevitable rollercoaster associated with being in a new learning curve while new routines and practices become the new norm. Also ensure the organization has the tolerance for the inevitable cycle of failure before success, and things getting worse before they get better.

This lack of patience and tolerance makes it very challenging for people to think outside the box. Afterall, no matter what you say to the contrary, if you don’t show people that you have the commitment and capability to support them to turn their new innovative business idea into reality, they won’t come up with these in the first place.

Bottom line – if creating a culture innovation and out-of-the-box thinking is truly important for your business, not merely a ‘nice to have’, then ‘put your money where your mouth is!’

Move your orientation from Activities to Outcomes, then Breakthroughs

I was participating in a performance review meeting with a successful division of a global technology company. In this meeting, the team members responsible for leading the key strategic initiatives were updating the entire management team on the status and progress of their initiatives.

With slight variations, pretty much every presenter jumped almost immediately into the details of the metrics they are tracking, the status of these metrics and the activities their initiative team is involved with.

None of the presenters provided any higher level context on the purpose and objectives of their initiative, or where they aim to take it. Based on these updates you could tell how efficient the team was at tracking the metrics and activities they chose, but not the impact and value of their initiatives, or the greater potential of their initiatives to reach a new level in the future.

Many leaders and managers have the same tendency to jump right into activities. I see it all the time. In fact, many leaders think that the higher purpose and objective stuff is “fluff” and “nice to have”.

These leaders are so mistaken! They are oblivious to a different level of powerful strategic approach.

When it comes to creating and achieving powerful strategies and extraordinary results, there are three levels of the game a team could be operating at: Activities, Outcomes, and Breakthroughs.


Most leaders operate at the activities level. Managing and tracking activities is the easiest and safest strategic approach. You think about where you want to be and then you identify and commit to the activities that you assume and hope will get you there. In many cases leaders don’t even spend much time on where they want to get to, they just identify activities, because that is what they are most familiar and comfortable with.

In the activities approach, there isn’t typically a conversation about commitment, and if there is it is about promising to carry out the activities. People tend to take on comfortable, familiar and realistic activities in order to reduce the risk of challenging the status quo or thinking outside the box.

In the performance review meetings, the activity oriented leaders give a detailed account of what they have been doing and what they will do moving forward. In this approach, success is ‘ticking the box’ on on-scheduled activities.

What can happen is that you carry out all the activities and you still don’t achieve your results. Usually, when that happens activity-based leaders come up with excuses or they blame the circumstances and others; things like: “We did our part but they didn’t do theirs” and “We were on track but the circumstances changed”.

If you push on the activity-oriented leaders to promise the end results, not the activities to get there, they typically get nervous and defensive. They would tell you something like “How can we promise outcomes that we don’t have enough control over“.

Accountability for Activities is no accountability at all!


Leaders who focus on outcomes want to know “What are we out to achieve?”. For them, the activities are a derivative of the outcomes, not an end in themselves. As, the circumstances or the status of the outcome change, so do the activities.

I work with a powerful technical leader who has become outcome oriented. Every time one of his managers gives him a report on what they are planning to do he stops them and asks: “What is the outcome you are going to achieve with all these activities?“. As he has shifted his managers’ orientation from activities to outcomes, they have been able to elevate their results and impact.

Outcome-oriented leaders want their managers to promise outcomes, not activities. This shift is a big step up. Sometimes the outcomes are clear but many times they are not, and the team needs to engage in a deeper and more powerful strategic dialogue to align around what they want their future state to look like.

You can only reach the breakthrough level if you are oriented around outcomes.


If you move from “What will we do this quarter?” to “What outcome will we achieve this quarter?” you are making a big step forward, but it still doesn’t mean you have taken the game to a new level. In order to generate a breakthrough mindset and conversation, you need to promise an outcome that is beyond what is predictable; you need to put a stake in the ground for a bigger, bolder future that requires you and your team to think, behave and work differently together. You need to ask: “What breakthrough outcome are we going to cause this quarter?“.

You could call it a stretch goal. However, in most organizations stretch goals are driven down from above. If you want to create a breakthrough orientation in your team you need everyone to think bolder and believe that they can shape their destiny, set the bar and achieve more than what is predictable.

As Alan Kay called it:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it!

The most powerful leaders feel comfortable to promise a bold future state and trust themselves and their teams to get there without knowing how to do so in advance.

You can do it too!

Why are leaders so afraid of facing issues?

I am all about empowering people and I do everything I can to ensure people always leave any work I do with them feeling more empowered, hopeful, enabled and energized than they came in.

The dictionary defines empower as:

Make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

It takes different approaches, methods and conversations at different times to empower different people.

Sometimes you have to reinforce what people are naturally strong at and what they are doing well in order to empower them. Sometimes, this means reminding them of how great they are.

However, at other times you may need to shake people up and help them confront their gaps, shortfalls and issues, in order to remind them not to sweep issues under the rug.

The same is true when dealing with team culture. Sometimes you need to acknowledge and promote the strengths of the team and at other times you need to support the team to confront its issues and gaps.

Many leaders are not comfortable or good at dealing with issues, so they prefer to avoid them and only deal with the positive things.

There are a few basic reasons for this, such as:

It is too confronting. Even if the leaders didn’t create the issues, it is their unwritten duty to take responsibly. Leaders know that their people will typically associate the issues with them, so many of them take it personally and become defensive. When it comes to owning the issues and taking responsibility it is too challenging for them, so they simply avoid it.

They don’t know how. So many leaders have scars and traumas from past incidents where they tried to resolve conflicts and challenging issues honestly and openly in a team meeting, and these meetings turned into unproductive bitching sessions. As a result, they cringe every time they have to deal with another big issue, so they simply avoid it.

They believe that avoiding issues works. Many leaders actually believe that by acknowledging or bringing up the issues they augment them, rather than put them on the table to be addressed. They also believe that if they talk for long enough about the positive things these topics will grow and the negative things will disappear.

But, unfortunately, that is not the way it works.

Yes, sometimes less significant issues can dissolve by themselves when you leave them alone. However, this is a rarity when dealing with issues that are meaningful for people. For the most part, when you have deep rooted conflicts, as well as alignment and trust issues in your team, they don’t tend to go away by themselves.

In fact, when you ignore or avoid negative dynamics and issues they tend to grow beyond proportion and gain a life of their own. Over time the unaddressed and unresolved issues form an undercurrent platform that cultivates cynicism, resignation and passive-aggressive behavior, and this dominates the culture.

When leaders talk about promoting and building upon the good things like teamwork, trust, cohesion and accountability people roll their eyes because they know that this is not the way their leaders behave.

When leaders come across as only being willing to focus on positive things and not the issues they create a compliant and inauthentic culture around them.

Employees who feel they can’t discuss the issues or provide honest negative feedback and criticism to their leaders or to other people or groups, just take their frustrated feelings underground.

And, if someone musters the courage to tell leadership ‘that the emperor has no clothes’ they are likely to get the wrath of passive-aggressive reaction. I have seen it happen too many times.

Every subtle or blunt negative reaction only sends an even stronger message to the troops, that if they want to keep their jobs, they should shut up, be careful and play the corporate game. Most leaders who behave this way don’t even realize the negative impact of their leadership philosophy and behavior on their people because no one employee in their right mind is likely to take the risk of telling them how it really is.

In order to promote and build upon the positives and strengths, you have to first ensure there is genuine permission, freedom and openness to discuss and address the weaknesses and issues too.

Developing people and teams always has to be done in a powerful context of respect and empowerment, not criticism and ridicule.

However, if you create an authentic environment in which people and teams can discuss both what is working and not working, there is so much that they could learn and benefit from both sides of the equation – from improving their natural competencies and strengths, as well as developing new competencies and strengths that excite them, benefit them, and they could become good at.

Only in this type of authentic and unrestricted environment can you build a strength-based culture.

To succeed you have to be a courageous leader!

Are you able to unplug and disconnect?

I just returned from a successful winter vacation at a great beachside resort. I say “successful” because being the proud workaholic that I am I determine the success of my vacations on my ability to unplug, disconnect and truly rejuvenate.

A long time ago I concluded that when I really want time off, I have to spend it in a place that supports that cause; a place where I don’t need to carry a wallet, buy food and drinks; a place that doesn’t have easy access to internet or internet at all.

Unfortunately, in today’s digital era it is becoming increasingly challenging to find places that don’t have internet. We can’t even escape from it on flights anymore. There doesn’t seem to be many places left where you can hide from the rat race these days.

In most companies, it’s accepted, even expected for people to continue to work or stay connected while on vacation. Most professionals find it hard to disconnect, even if their company doesn’t require them to stay in touch. Even if you love your work, it requires personal determination and discipline (for us fast-paced workaholics) to truly disconnect and unwind.

Personally, I need this physical and mental disconnection every so often. In addition, unplugging has greatly contributed to my business success. These periods of time off have provided invaluable opportunities to think, reflect, gain new perspectives, take stock of progress, create and plan for the future.

As my wife and I were sitting on the beach and by the pool, I was blown away (though not surprised) by the number of people of all ages who were constantly glued to their smartphones.

I could tell most of them were not just taking photos or videos, they were doing emails and/or interacting with Facebook, Instagram, and other social media apps.  Many of them were just with their swimsuit and smartphone. Some were standing on the beach with their feet in the ocean and their eyes glued to their smartphones.

It was the same way at the restaurants during breakfast, lunch and dinner – people sitting around a table, each glued to their phones in their private virtual world, consumed by what was on their screen rather than ‘being’ with the other people in their company. I would predict that in some cases they were texting and posting with each other, rather than looking each other in the eyes and having a conversation.

Why would you spend the time and money to travel away from your home to a beautiful isolated beach destination, with different scenery, climate, and atmosphere in order to merely continue with the same routine and behavior that you do at home?

And, if you take a vacation and spend the majority of your time and attention on your device, when do you actually get time to enjoy and reap the benefits of your vacation?

I am not naïve, and I pride myself on being open-minded and not judgmental. I understand the modern digital age we live in. I take part in it every day. I can’t live without my iPhone, iPad, and laptop too. I fully get it.

However, I try very hard to manage and control my smartphone usage and not allow it to manage and control my life. It seems that so many people have reached an unhealthy point, and this vacation again validated that.

In fact, it often seems to me that some people are more focused on showing off their life than just living it.

Some people may push back and say, “Being on my smart device doesn’t take away from my vacation, it enhances it,” or “It doesn’t distract me, it helps me relax.”

I don’t buy it! 

When you are consumed by your smart device, you are not fully present in the moment with the people and activities around you. It is as simple as that. We live more in our conversational worlds than in our physical worlds.

For example: Leaving behind an unresolved issue or upset at work could ruin your entire vacation because you constantly think and agonize about it. Participating in a conference call while driving your car on the highway dangerously takes your attention from the dynamics on the road because you are so consumed by your conversation.

How many times have you seen someone board a plane plugged into a conference call, speaking loudly, even about sensitive things, without any regard for the people around them?

When you are on your smartphones 60-80% of the time, you can be fully present with your immediate environment only 20-40% of the time – at best.

Don’t take this the wrong way, I value the digital transformation, I try to take the fullest advantage of technological innovations and smart devices and social media have already brought many benefits to my life.

At the same time, I also see the negative effects of technology – mainly with people being so preoccupied with their devices that it undermines their ability to relate, communicate and drive intimacy with others.

Where are you on this spectrum?