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Prisoners Of Our Own Experiences

by David Brock on August 16th, 2010

I meet with executives everyday.  They have great knowledge about their businesses–they can cite everything about their strategies, priorities, goals, key metrics.  They study their competitors incessantly, understanding their strategies and positioning.  They study their markets, and the best study their customers.  They have deep insight about everything in their industry.

But when I talk to them, a critical issue they always bring up is, “How do we innovate?”  “How do we start thinking out of the box?”

One of the problems with innovating and thinking out of the box is that we are prisoners of our own experience.  Most of us have long experiences in our industry.  We’ve been working with our company a long time, we may have worked with one of our competitors, we may have worked with one of our customers.  We go to “our trade shows,”  we read “our trade magazines,”  we have deep knowledge about our companies, industries and markets. 

That’s part of what makes us effective as leaders and business professionals, but at the same time, it’s exactly what limits us.  Our ideas and innovations are limited by this collection of past experiences.  We “know” what works and what doesn’t work, never reconsidering ideas that were “bad” in the past.  We look at what our competitors are doing, copying them, perhaps tweaking the idea to one up them.  We turn the crank on the tried and true programs of the past, sharpening them, reshaping them—sometimes it’s just like putting lipstick on a pig.

So how do we escape this?  It’s actually pretty easy (maybe I’m giving away the secret decoder ring of consultants), we need to look outside our own industries.  We need to look in very different industries to see how they approach some of the issues that we face.  For example, a few years ago, we put the executives of one of the leading high technology (B2B) companies together with the execs of an extreme sports company.  It was an interesting picture, on one side of the conference room, a row of execs in neatly pressed khaki’s and blue shirts, on the other side, guys in board shorts, torn tee shirts, lots of body ink and interesting piercings.  Each eyed the other warily, some started looking at me thinking, “Dave, what have you gotten us into?  Who are these freaks?” 

We tee’d off the session with a few key questions about their business models, key challenges, problems, and so forth.  Gradually, they found they had a lot in common.  All were struggling to grow their businesses.  All were struggling to get new and innovative ideas.  As they started to talk over different approaches, one of the exec’s said to his peers in his company, “They are doing something really interesting and different from what everyone does in our industry, if we co-opted their ideas, if we twisted them a little here and there, they would be really new and novel for our company!”

Soon everyone was discovering something “new.”  It wasn’t “new” to the presenter, but to the others it was new and innovative–when adapted to their industry.  Each side started seeing ideas presented from a source they never would have thought about before.

Innovation doesn’t have to be brand new and revolutionary. innovation can be artful adaptations of old ideas from very different industries and sources.  Try looking outside your industry–not just to adjacent industries, but to widely separated groups.  Try looking across generations–forget Gen Y–they are so old–look at kids.  Try looking across national borders and cultures.  Look at what other people do, how they handle similar issues, look at what you can learn and adapt from them.  Share what you are doing, let them learn and adapt from you.

Innovation is simple, you just have to know where to look, how to listen, how to artfully co-opt and adapt.  Tom Peters coined the phrase, Management By Wandering Around, MBWA.  Try IBWA–Innovation By Wandering Afar.

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7 Comments
  1. Great article Dave,

    It is something that we all need to think about and try to implement, seeing our business as an outside observer looking at the industry for the first time.

    If someone who knows nothing about how the industry works, how would they sell? How would they market and who would they market to?

    All of a sudden you might find a new niche, a new approach or a new group of people who aren’t the ones making the decisions but are those who influence the decision.

  2. Robert Koehler permalink

    Good suggestions. I also like Thiagi’s suggestion (a ‘learning consultant’ in the performance and training field) that leaders- and all of us- learn something today or each week that has no immediate goal or applicability. Usually we only learn or study other topics, groups, industries when there is a specific goal to achieve. Learning something outside of our immediate interest can broaden our perspectives and help us innovate based on a broader set of ideas when the time comes for problem solving.

  3. Robert: I couldn’t agree more. To perform at the top of our games, we need to be constantly learning and developing. Traditionally, too many focus narrowly–within their industry, discipline, function, etc. The great “a-ha’s” may come from completely different areas.

    For example, one of my “soapboxes” is the application of lean concepts to sales and marketing. There is so much we can learn–and our manufacturing counterparts may already be doing it.

    Thanks for the great addition to this post! Regards, Dave

  4. Dave

    Great insights from the leadership prison camp. I always enjoy hearing the results of your executive think tank sessions; pertinent and packed with food for thought. I found similar sentiments in a classic Peter Drucker book recently: In “The Effective Executive” Drucker points out that executives within an organization tend to get inwardly focused due to the constant exposure to internal operations with very little exposure to outside events. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the data available to him/her about outside events is filtered, condensed and pitifully too late to be of any real use.

    As Drucker points out, the truly important events are on the outside; and they are not the trends, but changes in the trends. Timely awareness of these changes and our responses to them are what determine the success or failure of our organizations. Such changes however have to be perceived; they cannot be counted, defined or classified. Classification will more often than not produce the expected figures, but the figures may no longer correspond to the actual behaviour of our clients, customers or competitors in real time. In other words if the Wall Street Journal is an executives only window on the world, failure is eminent! Execs must get out and rub shoulders with someone other than the usual suspects in order to get a sense of what’s really going on outside the four walls.

    Moreover I sense that innovation has to not only be perceived by listening and looking outside of our organizations but doesn’t successful innovation also necessitate a mindset which truly embraces the value of change? This is harder than it sounds because it means being confident in our ability to adapt and manage risk. It means becoming adept at developing and managing partnerships with people we just met and hardly know. It means developing the art of creating of win-win situations with the same august and resolute fire that made us successful internally.

    Thanks again Dave!

    Great stuff.

    Don F Perkins

    • Don, it is great to hear from you! This blog always suffers when you are away from commenting. Your comments are all right on. Thanks for rejoining the conversation–I, we missed you!

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