thinking outside the box

One of management’s longest-standing tropes is the expression, “think outside the box”, a reference to the 9 dots problem. In this problem, a businessperson is given a sheet of paper with nine dots on it, and directed to connect all the dots by drawing four lines, without the pen ever leaving the paper. In order to successfully solve the problem, you must draw outside the perceived boundaries of the box:

nine dots problem diagram

Management consulting has taken this literal solution of thinking outside the box and turned it into a cliche. However, the lesson remains relevant – solutions to challenging problems may require thinking outside conventional assumptions.

At a CEO retreat I attended a while back, participants who’d been in business for decades shared stories of thinking outside the box, of finding solutions that were unconventional and atypical, but solved the business problem at hand. These are just two of the stories shared.

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

A manufacturer of a durable good faced a plant closure due to environmental concerns. They had to close the plant and building a new one in a permitted area away from where their current plant was located. The problem was, the local government told them the plant had to be closed in 3 months, and the time to build a new plant was at least 18 months.

How did they solve for such a difficult problem? They couldn’t afford to be out of commission, not generating revenue, nor serving customers for 15 months. They approached all the customers of their product and said, here’s the situation. They laid everything out and then said, “we’re going to give you the opportunity to buy two years of inventory at favorable pricing right now so that you can stock up and not run dry while we rebuild”. Amazingly, almost all of their customers took the deal, which not only kept their business alive, but gave them the capital they needed to build their new plant without taking on significant debt.

Making Multiple Stakeholders Happy

The second story was about how to deal with the inherent competition between using a distributor and selling directly to the consumer, a fairly common problem. Distributors hate competing against direct to consumer sales because in many cases, the manufacturer undercut them on pricing or eat into their margins. Some companies work around this by setting up territories or forcing exclusive agreements, neither of which is the best strategy to increase overall growth.

Goodyear, the tire company, went outside the box and started manufacturing an entirely separate line of tires for their distributors that were not in direct competition with their direct to consumer goods. They were sold by distributors who could market them as Goodyear-branded tires, but with different features and benefits than the direct to consumer product. As a result, Goodyear effectively doubled what it could sell and kept its distributor network happy and profitable.

Listen When The Opportunity Presents Itself

Too often, we fail to pay attention to stories. Technology solves a great many problems, but technology is hardly the only solution to our problems. In the Japanese martial arts, the term sensei means someone who has gone before you and can show you the way.

When you have the opportunity to listen to war stories and tales of campaigns past, pay attention. Take notes. These stories become part of your own marketing and strategic DNA, and you never know when you’ll need them. Learn from the experiences of those who have gone before you, and you may both avoid their mistakes and replicate their successes. The best way to find solutions outside the box is to see who’s already drawn outside of it.

Author’s note: this post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated several times since. The most recent update provided the example of the 9 dots problem.


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