In my birth country of Nigeria, we have over 250 ethnic groups with equally as many languages. My parents are from two different groups, speak different languages and have different cultures. I spoke three or four languages at home in any given conversation, and was given and called a different name by both parents in their respective languages. What this environment taught me, at an early age, was that there are multiple paths and perspectives for every issue.
This capability is what made CEOs like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Amar Bose (founder of Bose electronics) successful. For me, the ability to achieve “beyond the box” thinking comes down to three underlying principles:
1. De-socialize yourself. Too many times, when leaders think deeply about a problem or challenge, they are merely doing what they have been socialized to believe is the right way to think about a problem or process, and it is very difficult to break this habit. All great business innovations and inventions in history have come from people who have not bought into this paradigm. For example, consider Steve Jobs. Who would have thought that a computer could have color? Or graphics? Or be a piece of furniture or art? We need to be conscious of our socialization and be able to step out of it so we can produce original thinking.
2. Deconstruct, then reconstruct. Imagine any fundamental idea or industry being composed of LEGO® pieces. Each piece has its own color and shape and exists on its own before it becomes part of a larger structure. When you break the structure of your question, challenge or problem down, you can decompose the paradigm that underlies it and take a look at each piece individually to determine: How would I ideally want to put the pieces back together? Once you deconstruct, you may be able to think of alternatives to achieve functionalities that are not consistent with the traditional way of doing things.
As you identify the parts, evaluate whether you can create an innovative, efficient and flexible new way of achieving the same functionality or objective. For example, take a look at the success of Amazon. They fundamentally deconstructed the traditional relationship between a reader and an author, but kept its essence in place, i.e., the author writes a book and the reader gets/buys the book. What was fundamentally restructured was how these two events occurred. Gone was the physical bookstore to be replaced by an electronic one; traditional inventory was replaced by one of the most efficient just-in-time supply chains in any industry. Then they followed that by restructuring the traditional physical book into an electronic platform that cut down on the weight and exponentially increased the number of books that could be purchased and carried efficiently by a reader. This sort of fundamental deconstruction and reconstruction is possible in every business; it simply takes a different way of thinking.
3. Think and behave like a conductor. Great conductors have the unique ability to hear the sound of each individual instrument—the fine strings of a violin and deep sounds of the base —and can weave this all together to hear the collective sound of the orchestra and the beautiful music it creates as a whole. Identifying, understanding and synthesizing nuances make us unique and successful, and provides an edge in any situation. How can we find out what is different if we don’t listen to differences of opinion, experiences and insights? People often come to the table with their ears oriented to, for example, the violin section; but to succeed, they have to listen to all the instruments that make the particular piece of music in their firm distinctive. In business, every person needs to act as a conductor and bring the ability to be an aggressive listener to the table. My mother’s people, the Yoruba, say that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. This is one of the greatest and most difficult challenges we face in the workplace.
I try to embrace these three principles in all aspects of my business. When building teams, I look for staff that has a stellar record of experience and success, but are not captives of their experience. I look for individuals who are comfortable and eager to use their experience as a tool to create new ways—many of which are different from the ways they have used in the past—to achieve business objectives and create value.
My mother’s people also say that nature has shown us the perfect and most powerful team: the hand. Each finger is different, yet they are all held together by the palm, a larger element than each individual finger. When the hand is in its most powerful state, it is either clenched as a fist or open for a handshake. In either state, all the fingers, though different, must work closely together. In this sense, the Yoruba people see diversity, in all of its ramifications, as a strong tool for success. As such, I try to foster an environment where thinking differently, to achieve a given objective in a more efficient or elegant manner, is embraced, encouraged and rewarded.
I am driven to find a better way to achieve a given objective, without being tied to just one traditional path to this objective. I challenge others to think openly and feel passionately about their work and creativity. After all, whoever said there was a geometric box associated with thinking in the first place?
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