One of the most overused clichés in business management is surely “thinking outside the box.”
You hear it all the time. And when you do, you can reasonably expect to be dragooned into a brainstorming session, those often painful exercises that usually lead nowhere.
Don’t get us wrong—we strongly encourage brainstorming. If it isn’t working for you, you’re probably just doing it wrong. It’s always easier to blame the tool than to question your technique, but would you blame the hammer if you hit your thumb?
Brainstorming participants need to focus on the right challenge to produce breakthrough ideas. The first step is an open mind: You need to challenge your existing ideas before you can come up with new ones.
Innovation is about changing reality—introducing a new product, making it cheaper, adding features. Creativity is about changing the way you look at the world. That’s what enables you to envision new products, new processes, new industries, or even new ways to tackle your midlife crisis.
Consider the ubiquitous Bic (BB:FP), founded in 1945 as a pen company. Imagine Bic employees asked to think of ideas to expand the company’s product line, proposing four-color pens, erasable pens, and pens customized with a customer’s logo. If someone had come up with the idea of selling lighters or razors, the reaction might have been: “You’re crazy—we’re a pen company!”
Indeed, if you’re boxed in by the notion that “we’re a pen company,” lighters and razors are terrible ideas.
Consider what happens, however, if you shift your mental model or “box” entirely and adopt a new outlook, something like: “We make disposable plastic items.” When you look at Bic from this perspective, lighters and razors are perfectly logical, and they lead to expanding sales, revenue, and profits.
Examples of business creativity can come from the biggest companies to the smallest. A Russian cafe chain called Tsiferblat has reinvented the coffee shop business model. Tsiferblat roasts its own coffee, but it’s free. Wi-Fi is free. Food is free. You pay only for the time you’re in the shop. Huh? Well, lots of people look at Starbucks (SBUX) as a place to sit and work or have a meeting, but the mental box that constricts most coffee shops is still essentially, “We sell coffee.”
Tsiferblat adopted a completely new model: “We’re a comfortable meeting venue.” Within that new perspective, coffee, food, and Internet access become amenities, not products. The space is the product, and time is the commodity you pay for.
The history of business is teeming with examples of such creativity, where an individual or company stepped out of an old mental box and created a new one, reinventing their company or changing their industry. Managers at all levels should look to these examples for inspiration.