My first ‘adult’ job was as a print finishing machine operator. Thanks to that experience I discovered a critical problem-solving technique that helps me solve business problems in unexpected ways.
As a young apprentice, my on-the-job technical education came from co-workers, vendors, and mechanics. Dating back to at least 2,000 BC, this apprentice model of training works well in many industries. The student learns a valuable skill in a short time-frame. The employer gets to thoroughly evaluate the prospective employee.
But there is a dark side to learning within a clique, whether it’s industrial, professional, or personal.
We are subject to groupthink. Psychology Today says,
“Groupthink occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.”
It's human nature to seek approval and protection so we tend not to stray from group consensus. You might say it’s our tribal lizard-brain instinct at work. Our clique, that which is supposed to enlighten us, protect us, and keep us sharp, is the very thing that can prevent us from discovering breakthrough ideas.
Revolutionary ideas are, by definition, a revolt against the consensus.
How then do we free ourselves from the bondage of consensus? Allow me to explain with a bit more of my story.
The complex machines I operated required a lot of troubleshooting. Tight deadlines forced me to fix things on the fly. In time, I was responsible for supervising a crew, which multiplied the machine and personnel problems thrown my way.
Chaos, defensiveness, and even a bit of tunnel vision seemed to be built in to the industry. Looking for ways to smooth out the operation I might be told, “Oh, it’s always feast or famine. You’ll get used to it.” When questioning unexpected problems on a newly purchased machine, the manufacturer’s rep might respond, “Nobody’s machine can do that.” That kind of answer protected his future machine sales rather than fix the problem.
The tech support person might sincerely want to solve my problem. Yet his primary agenda was to get me off the call and on to the next one in the shortest amount of time possible. If I reached out to a co-worker with a question or problem, they usually answered. But many times they didn’t, believing they were giving away personal trade secrets which threatened their job security.
Fortunately, I like to read and the internet was just getting started. Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I read about how to use the 80-20 rule in business and something clicked, (other than my knee from climbing up and down machinery.) It was my first breakthrough idea.
Most (80%) of my work problems came from a few simple causes (20%.) As the supervisor, I’d be asked the same questions over and over. It slowed production and generated lots of late-night phone calls. The solutions always came down to the same few basic items.
So I made some simple checklists for the operators that answered these questions. No surprise that production went up and interruptions declined. No, it’s not a revolutionary breakthrough like the invention of the television, but it radically changed my work life. I began to look outside my industry for inspiration and ideas.
I remember getting a newsletter from another industry that inspired me to mix and match equipment from unrelated manufacturers to produce certain jobs. Of course, this type of thinking was heresy to our vendors, who would never suggest such a thing. (I was later told I was practicing my own simple form of lean manufacturing.)
My best breakthrough ideas continue to come from diverse, unexpected sources.
The most effective one-time sales letter I ever wrote was inspired by a chiropractor at a marketing conference, completely unrelated to my industry.
It happened in ten minutes over lunch. A great lead-generation strategy came to me through an ex-professional rugby player who had recently started his own marketing firm.
Just to be clear, I’m not disputing the value found within our professional cliques and associations. It’s a great way to keep up with competitors. It’s how we learn basic skills and keep them sharp.
My point is that we need to look outside our clique to find breakthroughs.
If we’re just “copying and pasting” from everyone else, we’re going to look and perform like everyone else. We don’t want that. We need to be better, special, and different to get and keep the attention of our customers.
Studies show that it pays to look for business breakthroughs outside your industry.
Researchers from three business schools did a study about why workers are reluctant to use safety gear. They recruited roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to contribute ideas. Writing in the Harvard Business Review they said,
“Each group was significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the other fields than for its own.”
All the subjects found the “novel” solutions to be less immediately useful than the ideas that came from within the industry. Yet it was the novel, external solutions that offered the promise of real breakthroughs that would make a bigger difference than the internal solutions.
Authors Poetz, Franke, and Schreier continue, "There are some great examples in industry of creative solutions that arose out of analogous fields. More than a decade ago, 3M developed a breakthrough concept for preventing infections associated with surgery after getting input from a theatrical-makeup specialist who was knowledgeable about preventing facial skin infections. Other examples from our own industry experience include…an escalator company that borrowed a solution from the mining industry in figuring out how to install escalators in shopping malls."
Specialization undoubtedly hones our craft. We learn how to be a good practitioner in our field. Yet to become creators and innovators, to get those marketing ideas that make our businesses great, we have to step outside our narrow specialty.
This week I’m headed to a business mastermind retreat with about a dozen other small business owners. Hosted by Carrie Greene Coaching, I suspect—and hope—that most of us will be in unrelated business fields. If that’s the case, there will be plenty of ideas flowing.
In part two of this article next week, we’ll talk about specific ways to get great marketing ideas from outside your industry.
Do you have a “breakthrough” or “aha” moment that came from an unexpected source? Please share it below! If you like the article, be sure to use the social buttons to share it with your friends and co-workers.
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