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Insider’s Corner with Peter Rosenwald: How To Think Outside The Box (No, Really)

When you hear someone say, “Think outside the box,” do you immediately roll your eyes?

If so, you’re not alone. In this issue of Insider’s Corner, Peter peels back the layers of this overused advice to show us how radical thinking can still lead to radical results.

Struggling to price your goods and services? Read Peter’s blog on pricing here.

Thinking “outside the box” has become something of a threadbare cliché, and in rigid corporate environments, it is often given more lip service than actual support. In reality, potentially great creative marketing ideas are often allowed to quietly succumb to unheralded deaths. When something truly exciting comes along, it’s sometimes developed secretly with a courageous sponsor in the executive suite running interference. But that doesn’t happen that often.

The term “skunk works” exists to describe this rare scenario of workers being allowed to go off on their own to work autonomously on special projects. One famous instance was when David Packard sent the engineers who wanted to develop HP personal laser printers off to a “skunk works” on the edge of HP’s property and let them get on with it without any corporate interference. The Financial Times called it: “one of the most successful corporate ‘skunk works’ projects ever undertaken.” 1

In today’s more permissive and progressive companies, wild ideas are encouraged, especially since venture capitalists (perhaps better called adventure capitalists) are increasingly looking to inject big helpings of capital to fatten up prospective unicorns. However, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

We all wish to ignite the explosion of out-of-the-box ideas that will change the marketing for our brands. That’s one of today’s key challenges. But I probably don’t have to tell you – it’s not so easy.

The Road Most Traveled

There is so much marvelous marketing technology we can access that we often allow ourselves to slip into a type of convenience mode. We know what worked last time, and we know what the latest proven techniques are, so we take the safest default route. Call it a conservative approach dressed in out-of-the-box clothing.

If we are manacled to the famous 80/20 rule, that may be the best decision. But it is likely to have no more than an average level of success when real breakthroughs will optimize our companies’ profits and, not incidentally, our reputations. As my colleague and data analysis guru, Stephen Yu, says, “Attitudes like ‘Just leave it to the machine’ often lead to waste of resources and unsatisfactory results.”2

For marketers whose out-of-the-box ideas will almost certainly center around all aspects of getting their product or service known, desired, and purchased by consumers, discovering new and more attractive and efficient ways to accomplish this demands new kinds of thinking.

Unfortunately, there is no magic potion that will produce it, whether it’s inside or outside of the box. Nor is there a simple way of describing the abstract thought process which cultivates it. But there are some techniques (for lack of a better expression) which can help.

 What If…

The first is to always start with a clean slate, no preconditions. Address the opportunity (it should never be thought of as a “problem”) with a single-minded objective and then just let your mind wander towards something perfect, whether it is related to the specific opportunity or not. Ask yourself, “If there were no limitations of any kind, what would my idea look like? What would make it unique? And do I passionately believe in it?”

Like many of us, Ehud Shabtai wanted to get from place to place quickly and without asking for directions. The GPS given to him by his wife was too frustrating and this spurred him to get the out-of-the-box idea to start mapping Israel in real time, which lead to the development of Waze. Where would we be without it? In my case, probably lost.

It must have appeared an impossible task to map the world until he figured out how to create a virtual community to do it, letting the users update roads, landmarks and house numbers, as well as traffic alerts or obstacles on the road. We all know it was, and continues to be, a big success.

Shabtai likely asked himself this question, “What would happen if my crazy idea is successful? How would it change the way we do things now?” The answers can be exciting but also scary.

Don’t Worry, Think Different

All too often we get to this point and back off in fear at the immensity of it all. We also wonder if our colleagues will think we’re nuts. But if we have refined the crazy idea to its essence, done the rigorous homework to determine if it is truly original, figured out what it will take to implement it, and most important of all, decided that it will make a significant difference if successful, then it doesn’t much matter what the naysayers think.

There were plenty who were sure Steve Jobs was a nutcase going nowhere as he exhorted his followers to “think different.” Because he was a passionate out-of-the-box thinker and doer with an unwavering belief in his radical brand thinking, he was able to engage the passions of his colleagues and transform them into acolytes. Perhaps engaging those passions was his most out-of-the-box gift among many.

Optimists survey today’s difficult and rapidly changing commercial landscape as one of the potentially richest and most exciting opportunities in years. Now is certainly the time for us to take advantage of that and start truly thinking out of the box.



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