Experts Urge Us to Get Well Out of Our Boxes to Foster Innovation

Share |

Don't wait for the customer to tell you when they need something new, urged Bill Fischer, professor of innovation management at IMD, and co-director of the IMD-MIT/Sloan Driving Strategic Innovation Program, in an article on last year. He finds that few companies are "really up-to-date with their customers' needs" and even less familiar with their customer journey.

"A colleague told me that last week, among a group of 45 senior executives in a B2B market leader, only 12 had ever been to a customer site," he wrote.

Visiting customer sites would be one of many things that Harvard Business School professor and bestselling author Rosabeth Moss Kanter would want us to do. The key is to get outside your usual work environment. "She suggests we need to think outside our building full of boxes, somewhat echoing Peter Drucker's concept of the 'meaningful outside,' wrote idea architect Jeffrey Cufaude in a post on his popular blog.

Said Kanter: "To foster innovation and transformation, leaders should focus on impact, not inputs. They should identify unsolved problems, map the wider system influencing results, and determine weak links to strengthen or gaps to fill. But to do all that effectively, they must first jump out of the box and leave the building."

There will be no better opportunity for all of us to "leave the building" than SIPA Annual 2019, taking place June 3-5 at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. (My leave is just two blocks but that still qualifies.) The conference brings together colleagues, thought leaders, publishers, marketers—all looking to refresh their creative juices and hear new ideas.

In his post, titled Think Outside the Building, Not Just the Box, Cufaude follows up on Kanter's ideas.  He also wants us to escape our usual surroundings by:

  • looking to other industries for ideas
  • exploring partnerships and collaborations (can you say community colleges?);
  • engaging in creative problem-solving with individuals from outside your organization; and
  • taking regular field trips into other environments—"engaging in deep observation of what is done and how it is accomplished."

Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx, has "created what friends call my 'fake commute,' and I get up an hour early before I'm supposed to go to Spanx and I drive around aimlessly in Atlanta so that I can have my thoughts come to me." And she always brings a notepad with here wherever she goes. 

"Too many of the organizations that we see are so tied-up in their organizational structures, processes and ownerships that they are unable to recognize and harness the innate creativity that resides within their workforce," Fischer wrote. It can be tricky to make innovation part of everyone's job, so to speak, but encouraging staff to attend events and a start.

If getting out of the office can only be tied to customer visits then so be it. "When was the last time you sat opposite a prospect and listened to their objections?" asked Robin Crumby, founder of Melcrum and now Novatum Group. "When you come to make recommendations about changes, it's so powerful to be able to quote customers. If it originates with the customer, it has so much more power."

"I know clients putting together conferences, and they haven't talked to [their audience]," said Diane Arseneau, CEO of Zagora. "They say they know what people want, but I wouldn't put on a program without having heard from the market. It takes time."

She also said that events are a great place to get feedback for future initiatives—nothing can replace face-to-face research. "Every occasion I do is a good time to get more feedback."

And think.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
If not, you're missing out on daily strategies, tips, profiles and case studies that can build your audience and increase revenue. To sign up, please contact Nevena Jovanovic.

Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…