Monday, November 19, 2012

Dare to think out of the box?

Imagine this... It is late evening, quite dark and there is heavy rain. You are driving your two-seater car along a lonely road in a remote area. The nearest town is 40 minutes away and you have petrol only to reach the town. The petrol station will open only the following morning. The cell phone network is out so communication is not possible.

Suddenly you pass a bus-stop and see three people waiting for the bus which will come in four hours: A sick, old woman who looks as if she is about to die (The old woman reminds you of your mother, who died of cancer when you were 15 years old. You always regretted that you couldn’t care for her); an old friend (Years ago, while visiting you, this friend, seeing your interest in his brand new racing car, gave you the car keys and asked you to enjoy a short drive. You met with a serious accident while driving. This friend pulled you out of the car to safety even risking his own life); and the missing partner you have been dreaming about (You meet this partner after eight years. If you miss this opportunity, it will be gone forever.)

Which one would you offer a ride to, knowing very well that you could accommodate only one passenger in your car?

Some of you readers may have come across this question in emails that are circulated.

This moral/ethical dilemma was once used as part of a job application by a Fortune 500 company. The options you have are: Pick up the old woman, the friend or the ideal partner. The candidate who was hired had no trouble coming up with his answer (You will find the answer at the end of the article).

What won him the job was his ability to think beyond the obvious. He displayed proficiency in what is generally called, ‘Thinking Outside of the Box’. It’s such a cliché - “I need someone who thinks out of the box.” You hear it all the time. What does it mean? What’s ‘out of the box thinking’ anyway, and what’s so great about it?

Thinking inside the box means accepting the status quo (the existing state of affairs). Management gurus have a classic example – Charles H. Duell, Director of the US Patent Office, said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” That was in 1899: Clearly he was inside the box and not outside!

Let us take another example. I once worked in a reputed local carpet manufacturing company. It had a subsidiary which was in the carpet cleaning business with a customer base of over 400. Handling such a large customer base gave the marketing division enough headaches. The managing director wanted to cut down the base to less than 100, but have the same or higher profits. Absurd, you might think! No, it was not so.

There were brainstorming sessions and somebody came up with a bright idea. Can we make each customer worth three times as much? The idea set the ball rolling. Finally, we got the solution. Commercial jobs with large, easy-to-clean spaces (theatres, offices, hotels and convention halls) make more money in a day than houses. If we focused on getting such accounts, and stopped soliciting new house-cleaning accounts, it could prove to be more profitable. It was not so absurd. We made the mark within eight months.

I remember another case related to me by a cousin who was a marketing director in the UK for a major brand of liquor. The business was faltering and the company couldn’t boost its sales. More promotions, lower prices and getting better shelf placements were the “in the box” solutions. They didn’t work.

The team sat back and began to think. They talked for hours and days and finally someone asked, “What if we stopped the promotions and just raised the price?” Again it looked absurd, but as they say, every idea is a good idea. The team worked on it. Eventually, they found out how to do it. They found out that some types of liquor are bought quite often as gifts. The customers don’t want to buy the most expensive, but they also don’t want to seem cheap, so they won’t buy it if it doesn’t cost enough.

They stopped production for three weeks, changed the label, changed the bottle, changed the cap and changed the box to look exclusive and increased the price by 40 percent. They changed the advertising model, targeting it as an exclusive gift item worth giving. Imagine what happens to your profit margins when you raise the price and double the sales - that’s the power of thinking outside of the box. The sales soon doubled.

Gone are the days when sticking to tried-and-tested practices yielded dividends galore. Today, innovation occupies centre stage, calling for a change from the well-trodden path. Creative thinking is a critical competency for securing a good job, completing assignments, conducting research and developing new concepts. As one wise guy said, “If you only do what you always did, you will not even get what you always got”.

Have you heard about Dr. Stephen Covey who wrote the best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? In his latest book, The Leader in Me, he said, “To be successful, we must live from our imaginations”.

What does it mean? Indulge your fantasies. Let your imagination run wild. Build on that niggling idea at the back of your mind. Do not dismiss it as a waste of time. Sometimes the most ludicrous ideas do work out to be wonders. That’s what it means.

Always remember the Einstein formula, ‘Question! Question!’ Be inquisitive; ask questions. Ask yourself ‘why’ and ‘what if’ continuously to broaden your perspective, stimulate creative thoughts and generate new insights.

Edwin Herbert Land (May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991) was an American scientist and inventor, best known as the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation. He was taking pictures of his family on a vacation when his young son asked why they had to wait so long to have the pictures developed. ‘Good question!’ Land thought. He sketched some ideas that he tried out when he got back to his lab in Boston. The result was the Polaroid - the one-step process for developing and printing photographs which created a revolution in photography.
A word of caution

Creative thinking makes mundane work exciting and gives you the cutting edge over others. However, you cannot wait indefinitely for that flash of insight. Keep your feet grounded and do not seek to be different just for the sake of being different. All said and done, we will definitely gain more if we give up our traditional thought limitations.

Out-of-the-box thinking doesn’t require people to rewire their brains or take courses in creativity, although those courses sound like fun.

To think outside the box, you only need to ask “Is there another way to think about this?” What was your answer to the brain-teaser above? Are you still trapped inside the box? Remember, when you dare to think out of the box, the box goes away. Get creative! If the door is locked, try a window!

Here is the solution to the brain-teaser! You could pick up the old woman, because she is going to die, and thus you should save her first; or you could take the old friend because he once saved your life, and this would be the perfect chance to pay him back. However, you may never find your perfect dream lover again. The candidate who was hired asked himself, “Is there another way to think about this?”

He simply answered: “I would give the car keys to my old friend, and let him take the old woman to the hospital. I would stay behind and wait for the bus with the girl of my dreams. Come rain, come thunder... it is worth every drop!” He dared to think out of the box.
By Lionel WIJESIRI -