Wednesday, July 30, 2008

don't think out of the box... get out of the box!

Hardly a day passes without my hearing someone uttering the exhortation to "think out of the box". I am sure the folks who utter this cliche meant well -- surely it's good for us to become more creative in our thinking -- but I actually think that this exhortation can be counter-productive and in some contexts may in fact be down-right wrong. The problem with this "think-out-of-the-box" metaphor is that it encourages the belief that one can actually solve real world problems by sitting where one is -- one just needs to be able to think in clever and creative ways. While this imagery certainly appeals to our intellect, I believe a more appropriate metaphor for many of us, especially the intellectual type, is not so much to try to think out of the box, but to GET out of the box -- i.e. get out of our comfort zone and actually go down to the ground where the real action is, so that we can experience first-hand what the real problem is like, as opposed to what we IMAGINE it to be.

We already have too many smart bureaucrats who sit in their air-conditioned office to dream up clever policies or regulations that unfortunately don't work (or make things worse) in practice because their clever policies have omitted certain realities on the ground (for those of you living in Singapore, you may recall the recent incidence of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) coming up with new regulation on where taxi can stop that was well-intentioned but turned out to be impractical and had to be retracted -- would this has happened if the officers involved have actually gone to the ground themselves?). We already have too many smart business school professors sitting in their ivory towers writing clever papers that have little relevance or impact, because they don't bother to talk to the actual folks in industry (ok, some of my colleagues will kill me for saying this...). And yes, we already have too many smart entrepreneurs writing fancy business plans without first going out to observe or talk to potential customers about what their actual pain points are.

Too many wrong solutions are implemented because people imagine what the problem is, instead of being out there to personally experience and learn what the real problem is. What we need to exhort more is for people to get out to the real world to learn first-hand -- the creative thinking can come later, after you have a better grasp of what the real problem is. I particularly stress this point to young entrepreneurs that I'm advising -- by all means, do your homework to formulate your product strategies and develop your go-to-market plans carefully, but what is more important is to start engaging potential customers and to learn about what their real pain points are as early as you can -- unfortunately, very often this cannot be done effectively without actually launching a product into the market. You will get far more ideas about what to do next, when you have real feedback on a real product, than if you just talk about your product concept on paper -- the quality of the conversation is just not the same. The worst business plans are those that provide fanciful market segmentation analysis, but cannot name actual companies or persons that the entrepreneurs have personally talked with or observed about the specific needs, and how their proposed product are actually addressing such needs.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not suggesting that we become constrained to the existing reality and become enslaved to working within the mold of conventional wisdom; indeed, a large part of achieving truly radical innovation is to upset the existing order with disruptive ideas, and to do this we do need maverick, out-of-the-box thinking. I do believe, though, that all innovation, to be successful, must solve some actual or latent user needs, and often these needs are not well articulated, so the best way to discover what they are is to be out there and observe how the users grapple with their problems in their natural context. In this regard, I believe we all can become better innovators and entrepreneurs if we learn to become more like anthropologists (one of the ten faces of innovation as identifed by IDEO's Tom Kelley). Afterall, discovering opportunities is at the heart of entrepreneurship, and the best way to discover opportunities is to become more observant about people's needs and desires.

So, if you have been thinking hard trying to discover the next great entrepreneurial opportunity, stop thinking and try getting out of your box first.

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