In a nutshell: To gain a new perspective, seek new opportunities, look beyond the obvious, bring diverse groups together and embrace failure. 

There’s a lot of merit to thinking inside the box. First, you’re investing time and resources into efforts that have already been proven to work, so you can be fairly certain the project or initiative will work, and you’ll probably even be able to predict the ROI. Second, your people will know what to do and what’s expected of them. And, finally, repetition and reiteration takes advantage of the expertise your organization has amassed over time.

So, is there a role for unconventional thinking? Yes! Exploring what’s possible — and even what seems impossible — sates our curiosity and opens the door to new products, procedures, plans and profits. Your employees can stretch their imaginations and put a lot of new ideas on the table. Long-held assumptions are put under the microscope.

How do you dive into unconventional thinking? We’ve got some thoughts.

Ask What Else Your Company Can Do

In the film (and, later, musical) Kinky Boots, a staid shoe manufacturer is facing a shutdown because no one wants their products anymore. Through a chance encounter, the CEO discovers there’s an entirely new, exciting market to enter that takes advantage of company’s strengths in footwear engineering and manufacturing. Before long, the employees are energized, the company is saved, and fashion editors in Milan are raving.

Happy endings don’t just have to happen in Hollywood and on Broadway. You can find them at your company too. Look at your mission and vision statements with fresh eyes, and ask yourself and your employees if there are products and services that have been overlooked. Perhaps your mission and vision statements are too focused or broad to allow for innovation and expansion, in which case you might want to consider rewriting them.

Look Beyond the Obvious

Rohit Bhargava, a well-known innovation and marketing expert, says there is a logical process to identifying future trends — or, as he calls it, “trend curation.” The goal, he says, is to look for the trends that aren’t obvious, which are the ones that represent great ideas, will have a great deal of impact and are likely to accelerate quickly.

Many people identify trends by simply looking at what’s happening in the present. This isn’t enough to be able to predict future trends, Bhargava says. In his annually updated Non-Obvious series of books, he says trend curators are:

  • Observant
  • Fickle (i.e., selective)
  • Elegant (i.e., looking for beautiful ideas)
  • Thoughtful
  • Curious

Adopt these habits, and you might have a better chance of predicting the trends that will shape the future. Once you’ve done that, you can emulate hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who famously said he skates “to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” (Yes, we apologize for this overused business cliché, but it is apt in this case.)

Brainstorm

Brainstorming, as a group experience, is not always productive. There’s the possibility for discussions to devolve into groupthink. Less experienced employees might feel guarded around those with more experience. No one wants to look foolish in front of their bosses. And introverts might clam up as extroverts dominate the conversation.

Here are some ideas for productive brainstorming sessions:

  • Keep it positive, and don’t let ideas that might seem unachievable at first be squashed
  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak, even the quiet people
  • Invite people from different disciplines and departments so you’re getting diversity of ideas
  • Don’t involve too many people, as large groups might have a hard time building rapport
  • If people don’t know each other well, start with an icebreaker
  • Keep track of ideas; use a whiteboard or Post-It easel so that everyone can see the list

Learn from Failure

Unconventional thinking can be scary at first, and there’s no guarantee of success. (Every business school student will hear the story about New Coke, still considered a huge flop, at least once.) Don’t let this dissuade you from taking chances.

Writing for Forbes, personal branding expert William Arruda says, “… someone who survives failure has gained irreplaceable knowledge and the unstoppable perseverance born from overcoming hardship.” That’s true for both individuals and companies.

Psychologist Guy Winch details four steps for learning from failures in a 2013 Huffington Post article. The first three are to look at the planning, preparation and execution of the change. The fourth is to consider which variables were under your control, and which were not. “As long as you know where and how to look, failure can indeed be a great teacher,” Winch writes.

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