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Thinking Out of the Box

Out of the box thinkers are one of the most valuable assets on any team. Groundbreaking ideas that can improve business outcomes in a myriad of ways from revolutionizing product designs to radical new business models. Discontinuous improvement often comes from non-incremental thinking.


Some people are naturally out of the box thinkers, popping out one wild idea after another. They see how apparently disparate things connect, and have a natural sense of how the puzzle pieces could fit together. However, even those who are not naturals can develop a better ability to think out of the box. The key is to be able to see the invisible box walls. Out of the box thinkers generally don't see the box.


Boxes are built on assumptions. The walls are those things that we believe are true. Beliefs and assumptions come from our education and experience, our biases. If we don’t challenge them, they can work against us and keep that next great idea in the dark of the closed box.


To illustrate, two examples from my career:


Introducing a new blood salvage product with a focus on orthopedic surgery we targeted the anesthesiologist as the customer, because they control blood transfusion in the OR. I had been in the cardiac blood salvage business for years, I knew anesthesia makes real time transfusion decisions in the OR so I assumed they were was the right customer target. Shortly after launch I realized that assumption was wrong. The orthopedic surgeon was setting the transfusion strategy with autologous pre-donation and surgical approach, often doing so weeks before the surgery. We changed our focus to the orthopedic surgeon, which led to rapid revenue growth, attracting strategic partners and a successful exit.


Deploying a digital marketing strategy for a med tech product required reengineering of the promotional materials approval process. We needed to quickly deliver large volumes of content, despite multiple signatories. We added tech and built an automated sign-off process. But the leader of the process was still struggling with getting signatures and advocated for a return to a manual process with a weekly meeting. I hate weekly meetings, and it took her a while to break down my bias that large weekly meetings are an inefficient waste of time. In the end it worked, facilitated rapid decision making and vastly accelerated approvals and output.


In every product, project and plan understand your underlying assumptions. Use a lens process to make a list. I use the same process to identify assumptions that drive risk - the other side of the opportunity coin. Look at the problem through multiple lenses and identify the key assumptions. My usual categories:



Out of the box thinking starts with identifying the assumptions structured into your product, approach or process. However unlikely, imagine a world where that assumption is absolutely wrong. Then think through the consequences and work arounds you would deploy. Hidden in there may be that out of the box idea – the one that totally transforms your business. Be willing to challenge even the most strongly held truths. Questioning everything you believe to be true could lead you to a better more prosperous reality.

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