Thomas L. Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late, does a wonderful job identifying three interconnected, tectonic trends that are changing the nature and speed of everything that affects our lives. An early section in the book describes a conversation Friedman had with Lin Wells, who teaches strategy at the National Defense University. Friedman writes, “Wells describes three ways of thinking about a problem: ‘inside the box,’ ‘outside the box’ and ‘where there is no box.’ The only sustainable way to thinking today about problems, [Wells] argues, ‘is thinking without a box.’ …[he] calls this approach… “radically inclusive”, which involves bringing into your analysis as many relevant people, processes, disciplines, organizations and technologies as possible—factors that are often kept separate or are excluded altogether.”
This radically inclusive approach is already here. Uber is a vivid example of this new approach. Its market capitalization of $68 billion is greater than that of Delta Airlines and United Continental’s—combined. In a recent press release, CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick said, “I’m excited to announce that Uber has acquired Otto, a 90-plus person technology startup whose mission is to rethink transportation, starting with self-driving trucks.”
He continued, “Anthony Levandowski, Otto’s co-founder, will now lead our combined self-driving efforts reporting directly to me—across personal transportation, delivery and trucking—in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Pittsburgh. If that sounds like a big deal—well, it is. More and more the world of atoms is interacting with bits. To provide digital services in the physical world, we must build sophisticated logistics, artificial intelligence and robotics systems that serve and elevate humanity.”
Clearly, Kalanick is thinking without a box. He wants to own not only ridesharing, but transportation itself. Realistically, most companies are neither Apple nor Uber. What can you do to disrupt not only your company but whole industries, instead of falling prey to a competing disruptor?
Here are 4 suggestions CEOs can use right now to get started thinking without a box:
1. Learn to develop fresh eyes. To learn how to “think without a box,” CEOs must be fully engaged and work relentlessly to ensure that their teams are engaged as well. Imagine you just were appointed CEO of your company. You would certainly look at everything through a clear, transparent lens—with no baggage as to how things evolved. Fresh eyes will provide you with great insights, and may yield some surprises.
2. Think like your biggest competitor. What do you think they would do to try to put you out of business? You are now the CEO of your largest, most powerful competitor. What are the strategies, plans and actions you would unleash to put your current company out of business? You may as well undertake this exercise, as they certainly are.
3. Spend meaningful time with your customers. Learn what’s working, what isn’t and where the growth opportunities are, from people who already are doing business with you. These customers are paying your bills. Are they doing so because they really like your company or is it inertia? Find out from them what they really think and you will uncover a wealth of opportunities, as well as real problems you can fix. This process is vitally important, and you will want to do this yourself initially.
4. Challenge your IT department to re-think their role, and how they can strategically advance the company. It’s not sufficient for them to ensure that all the business processes and operations run smoothly and acceptable costs. They have the opportunity to make transformational changes that affect employee and customer engagement, distribution, profitability and creating sustainable competitive advantage.
CEOs should fully engage with each of their critical constituencies: employees, customers and shareholders. They need to identify both big opportunities and existing gaps and develop plans to move forward in a bold way on these fronts. They need to see their employees as assets, not costs and remember that their customers are increasingly being bombarded with very attractive alternatives.
Clearly, I agree with Lin Wells that there is no box and am, myself, continually working through these 4 suggestions.
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