Aug 28, 2014
Why is it bad to think inside the box?
It isn’t, always. But every last publisher on LinkedIn, Inc., Fast Co. and the like sprouts a thesis that different, new, disruptive ideas are where the market is going, and more importantly, where the money is.
Are they wrong? Absolutely not. Are they telling the whole story? Absolutely not.
There’s a little something called practicality, and it relates a lot to this other thought i have called prioritizing perfectionism. It goes thusly: theory and ideas, though nice, aren’t always DOABLE. Practicality is the quality or state of things that are doable, manageable, can-be-done, can-be-managed. If you’re being practical, you’re most likely also thinking two steps ahead, because there’s going to be a person at the other end of the spectrum who has to DO and/or MANAGE everything.
We’re challenged today with a paradox: be so different that your ideas and products have never been done before, and manage the whole shebang it so that it’s practical to produce, distribute, and get these ideas and products adopted. It’s ok to fail until you succeed, too. Failure isn’t bad…it’s just a big loss of money and time. (No biggie.) Rapid prototyping! User-centered-design! Research! Refine, remix, destroy, repeat!
Disruptive innovation vs. practical application is a fine line, and honestly the line is drawn right through many peoples’ state of sanity.
Here’s an example: you have one week to really WOW the pants off of a prospective new client, who happens to work in the grocery space. You don’t want to do something that’s already been done; you want to do something they’re going to see, and it’s going to light up their face. So you brainstorm with a team of creative people and you come up with this AMAZING idea to present your company’s capabilities on a series of fake consumer products that match up with the skills of your team.
It sounds so brilliant and you are convinced that showing up with a bunch of grocery bags filled with products, giving one each of these bags to the people in the room, and presenting by pulling out items from the bag is going to make you memorable. Sounds great and memorable and you’ll be remembered for this, for sure.
Well, I find myself in this position a lot. Did anyone in the room think past the beginning of that idea? Did anyone think that presenting Fred’s expertise in social media on a banana might be a challenge? What about maybe his expertise in social media on a loaf of bread?? Every piece of bread could have a cut-out like a different logo from the platforms we specialize in!! (??)
Chances are it’s my job to think it through once the brainstorm is over. So I’ll play it out in my head: Get everyone on the team to think about how they might present their capabilities on a “product” (like Fred and his bread.) Then work with the team to create said things, assemble into products, and bam you’re done.
This seems totally doable until It turns out that Cindy can’t for the life of her figure it out, she has 30 years in traditional marketing and there is not one thing she could use from a grocery store to explain it. And, conversely, Mark wants to use a broomstick because it’s going to help him explain that his work in crisis communications helps to clean up a mess. Don’t worry that bringing 6 brooms to the meeting sortof gives away the surprise of “what’s in the bag”…and also don’t worry that they won’t fit in anyone’s car.
In striving to be different, it’s very possible to get into this kind of trouble, and a few stressful “managing expectations” conversations you didn’t plan for have to happen along the way. Three fictitious days have passed and we’ve gone from nothing special to having a brilliant idea and getting everyone noodling on presenting from consumer packaged goods. Huzzah!
Now we have two working days to finish the job. Miraculously, on day 4, Cindy wraps her head around the concept and decides she must use carved potatoes shaped like the awards she’s won in her field. This is in fact not practical in any sense of the word, but it’s too late to turn back now so you press on and work into the night.
You’ll be different, when it’s all over. And the new client will have some pretty awesome groceries that somewhat adequately tell them about your company and what it can do! They’ll also have marketing-award-shaped homefries for breakfast tomorrow!
Now flip to the reverse side of this scenario. You decide to show up in the most expected way: bring a powerpoint. Maybe print a few custom re-usable grocery bags as leave-behinds. And what if everyone wears aprons from the grocery-store chain to show you’re ready to be part of their team?? All doable. All a little special in their own way.
These two examples show vastly different approaches to solving the same problem, yet one is very inside the box, and another is very outside the box. (Can you guess which is which?)
The latter, which is kindof a joke but not really, would definitely get you noticed. And it fits perfectly in the paradox: you did something super different and cool, and then are faced with managing the process of making it real and getting it adopted. It’s a risk that has huge consequences should you fail, but also huge rewards should you succeed.
But the former idea, the “expected” one, is also a risk in its own right: you’re for sure going to be able to produce the materials and make the pitch a reality, but you risk it not being the different, wow-moment thingie of everyone’s dreams.
So I pose to you: which route do you take?
Solving this problem is quite a burden. Little risk reaps little reward, yet when stakes are high and I’m not quite sure what the expectations will be on the other side, I tend to take a practical approach. I ask: Can I do this? Can I do this without crying on the inside? And, maybe more importantly, can I do this without actually crying?
The point of this post is really to present the problem in lieu of a clear solution. Is it worth making yourself crazy to have an outrageous disruptive idea or is it smarter to build up from the ‘doable’ by adding progressive elements of surprise?
Everyone’s different in this regard – and i think a seasoned professional knows the answer from the outset of a project vs. already 3 days into a disaster. Most of the time I know what will work at the beginning and I counsel clients and co-workers accordingly. But there’s always this nagging feeling in the back of my head that only the risk-takers get ahead.
Maybe it’s time to make that change, put it out on the line, and try to make Cindy her potato sculptures. Either way, you’re going to be working late nights. Eventually, when you’re done with this whole thing, you can crawl back inside the box where there will be a bed and a pillow and two cats ready to snuggle.
Was it worth it?