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!’

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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