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Beyond the Conference Room Solution

December 03, 2013

Free Yourself from Conventional Thinking

This post was orignally published in the Harvard Business Review on May 6, 2013.  http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/05/free-yourself-from-conventiona/

Although organizations often consider creative thinking to be a luxury—and one they can’t afford because of current pressures—my experience with many organizational teams confirms that anyone within the organization can generate great ideas. From executive management to frontline employees, creating a culture of creativity and innovative thinking can be easier than you might think possible.

Let’s consider the following five ways to shake the tree of ideas a lot harder than you currently do:

  • Killing the status quo
  • Altering your point of view
  • Comparing your organization to others
  • Imposing artificial limitation
  • Looking for unorthodox opportunities

Killing the Status Quo
In the same way that people hold deep-seated beliefs, organizations have sets of accepted core convictions about how to get things done. Too often these assumptions go unchallenged. The first step to killing the status quo is accepting that these core beliefs exist and then challenging each and every one. Such an undertaking will set you up for discovering and implementing new ideas ahead of the competition.

Consider Blockbuster’s failure to recognize the changing video rental landscape. If they had challenged their long-held beliefs, they might have considered the seemingly unorthodox decision to buy Netflix in the same way that Best Buy bought Geek Squad. At the time of the Geek Squad acquisition, it was considered foolish by many. But the $3 million purchase price was paid back hundreds of times over.

From my own experience, I was once asked by Bank of America to implement its vision of “reinventing banking for the 21st century.” The goal was to migrate from their current geographic-based business model to one that reconsidered the traditional branch format, focused on the customer as the center of all activity, and improved the experience of its customers.

To jump-start creativity in its people, the bank converted several local branches into “learning laboratories” that enabled them to quickly introduce new concepts, test them with live customers, and evaluate their performance. Hundreds of new ideas—from greeters to kiosks to play areas for children to informational videos—were introduced.  These laboratories were transformative for the employees, who observed, interacted with, took lots of pictures, and later shared their observations with teammates in formal idea-evaluation sessions.

By employing a learning laboratory concept, pressure to select the “one big idea” was greatly reduced and the fear of failure was eliminated. And seeing firsthand how the customer experience was transformed, bank employees relaxed their strongly held paradigms about which ideas would prove to be most successful. This transformation, in turn, drove them to ideate and implement a host of new customer experiences that they had never before considered.

Altering Your Point of View
To boost your creativity quotient, it’s paramount that you break free of your existing point of view, which is easier to suggest—and even to intellectually understand—than to actually do. Compelling studies verify that people often refuse to jettison their deep-seated beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence to contradict it.

To break stubborn obstructions that stand in the way of new modes of thinking, you sometimes need to experience something firsthand outside of the office or boardroom. Let me begin an example of this phenomenon with a personal anecdote. For my wife’s most birthday recently, my children and I wanted to surprise her with a Mini Cooper. Since my wife manages our finances and I can’t spend a nickel without her knowing about it, I needed subterfuge, so my salesperson drove the car to my house (with a large red bow on top), took care of the insurance and all paperwork, and let me pay for it two days after taking possession. He didn't even ask for a credit card. One week later, a beautiful box arrived for my wife with a welcome kit containing key chains, fun facts about the car, and several other goodies.

During this same time, in my professional life, I was asked by The Hartford to help them reinvent the end-to-end customer experience for one of its rapidly growing product lines to produce a “game-changing level of customer delight.”

The experience my family had working with the Mini Cooper sales associate to build our customized experience was so memorably positive that I vividly recounted the Mini Cooper sales experience for the insurance team to let them experience for themselves what a game-changing customer experience really feels like. 

The Hartford team was thoroughly inspired by the story and rethought its entire end-to-end sales and customer service process. A few members of the team even visited the dealership. They redesigned all of their collateral, created a beautiful follow-up box that contained interesting and important product and service information, added concierge-level customer service, and redrafted benefits about the product itself. Today, the offering stands out from the competition because of paradigm-shifting insights the team gained from an experience outside of the conference room.

Comparing Your Organization to Others
This approach can be a powerful driver of new ideas, particularly when you compare your organization to a seeming unrelated one. As Steve Jobs once said, “Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.” This strategy is not about emulating other organizations; it’s about stimulating surprising ideas that you might not come up with otherwise.
Here’s a brief exercise that uses this approach. Ask yourself, your leadership team, and all relevant stakeholders the following questions:

  • How would Procter & Gamble expand our global business?
  • How would Capital One generate insights and new offerings from our customer data?
  • How might IBM reinvent our organization?
  • How might Coca-Cola expand our brand across new products in adjacent markets?
  • How would McDonalds ensure a consistent customer experience globally?
  • How would Amazon redesign our supply chain?
  • How would FEDEX redesign our logistics network?
  • How would Southwest Airlines maintain our customer loyalty despite a turbulent economy?

These questions and many more that you should now create will prompt bold and improbable new ways of thinking.  When Avon Products wanted to create a “world class” help desk for their agents, we took a “field trip” to the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. The team inquired about having an event at the hotel and spoke with their entire team from facilities, catering, reservations, and concierge to experience the perfect customer service experience across several departments.

Imposing Artificial Limitations
It might be counterintuitive, but imposing limitations on your thinking can be an invaluable way to spark creativity. By constraining you, it paradoxically frees you to run wild within a smaller area. Imagine your organization limited by the following restrictions:

  • You have to serve only one of your existing consumer segments.
  • You have to move from B2C to B2B or vice versa.
  • You have to slash the price of your product or service by a third.
  • Your biggest channel is now gone.
  • You have to double the price of your product or service.
  • You can’t get a single new customer, so you must maximize value from existing customers.
  • You now can only interact with your customers online.
  • You have to partner with another company.

I used a version of this strategy recently while working with a division of New York Life seeking to build a fresh growth strategy. As an exercise, I encouraged the team to focus their thinking exclusively on their existing customer base. I asked, “If you weren’t able to attract a single new customer, how could you meet your growth targets exclusively from current customers?”

The exercise forced team members to analyze the wallet share from their current customers. It also demanded that they segment their business not according to their traditional measures but to what extent their current customers were buying the company’s full range of products and services. This analysis offered them two startling insights.

First, the division had historically segmented their customers into large, medium, and small based on sales, and they rewarded sales executives based solely on customer size. When they looked at share of wallet instead of sales, however, they realized that, while customer size was important, it was no more difficult to bring in a large account than a medium account—so size didn’t necessarily correlate with effective selling. As a result, maximizing the value clients by getting them to purchase a full suite of products and services was going unrecognized and unrewarded and a new incentive system was installed.

The second insight dramatically affected the client’s organizational structure. The client had organized its sales force geographically to focus on maximizing the relationship with the independent financial advisor community.  This was standard industry practice. But when the team analyzed the data, several revelations emerged:

  • The client was invited to submit a proposal for nearly every RFP submitted within its target market.
  • The financial advisor typically brought only one to two deals to the client, so maximizing the relationship did not serve to generate deal flow.
  • Despite making the final round for most proposal requests, the client only won its fair share of the deals (the same close ratio of each of its largest competitors), so building a relationship with the financial advisor community was necessary but didn’t result in increased sales.

The team realized that to increase the close rate in what was believed to be a commodity industry, it needed to change its perspective. They decided to group clients by practice, develop practice leads, and focus sales associates not only on sales but on developing innovative industry trends and insights. It was a risky move, since it had never been done in the industry. But the result was dramatic. When the company made the final round in their sales presentations, they now distinguished themselves by the deep knowledge they had regarding trends, benchmarks, and insights. These insights convinced prospective clients that they really understood their business.

The following year, they reached their annual sales goals… in March!  And not long after that, one of its largest competitors announced that they were moving to a practice model.

Looking for Unorthodox Opportunities
To spur the ideation process, do not constrain your thinking only to improving products or services. Instead, rethink every touch point between you and your customer to improve how they currently interact with your organization. Perhaps you are forcing them to interact with you in a way that’s less than ideal and you could improve it.

  • How does your customer become aware of your company, your product, or the service you provide? (Barnes & Noble has a dedicated Nook desk at its physical stores to demonstrate the product and answer questions).
  • How do customers locate your offering? (OfficeMax makes finding products online easy).
  • How do customers evaluate different options and select your offering above your competitors? (Gatorade has a Mission Control Center that monitors its brand in real time across all social media).
  • How does your customer actually select and pay for your offering? (PayPal defined easy online payment).
  • How do your customers receive your offering? (The Kindle ships in environmentally friendly yet functional packaging to support their brand).
  • How do customers build, install, or use your offering for the first time? (Apple’s beautiful packaging is opened and the product is plug and play).
  • How do customers interact with your offering in an ongoing way? (Vitaminwater used its Facebook page to poll fans on which packaging they preferred).
  • How do customers get their questions answered by you?  (GE maintains a blog to keep in touch with customers, works with external customers to improve customer experience, and was customer-ranked number 1 of all major appliance companies).
  • How do customers get your offering repaired, replaced, or modified? (Zappos reinvented the shoe-buying experience by offering multiple reviews of each product, great multi-dimensional views, and obsession with customer service).
  • How do your customer refer your organization, service, or product to a friend or family member? (Amazon just keeps growing and growing and growing…).

I am currently using this strategy with a division of a Fortune 100 financial services company seeking to completely reinvent its service delivery model.  Long-standing sacred cows, an inflexible IT system and long-tenured employees possessing a somewhat intractable entrenched operating paradigm created the need for a radically different approach to transformation.  We formed a six-person core “NewCo” team whose full-time job is to put the current division out of business within five years.  The team is examining every touch point throughout the its value chain and has used best practice out-of-industry models as the inspiration for the new operating model.  The team has been working for the past four months and hopes to finish by mid-2013.

Doing business the same old way will likely generate the same results you have always gotten.  Creativity requires a spark; dynamism is the oxygen on which creativity thrives.  Encourage as many non-traditional interactions as possible.  Get radical.  Try new things.  Have fun!

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Let’s start with an explanation of the title, Beyond The Conference Room Solution. In all of my workshops and in many of my lectures, I refer to the phrase, The Conference Room Solution as a far too common approach used by organizations use to solve many of their most challenging issues.

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