Business Unit Leaders: How are you Doing at Breaking Out of the Box?

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As usual the real learning was in the application.

I was in Denver a couple of weeks ago with a group of colleagues for some strategic development and planning.  As part of our work, one of the team members set up some offsite time at a popular “escape room.”  In case you haven’t heard, these are all the rage; you and your team find yourself in a fun, well-designed puzzle room with a challenge and sequential clues that lead to a conclusion and allows you to “escape.” Of course you are competing with the clock…and in our case another group of colleagues, as well.

I’ll tell you how we did a little later. First I’d like share how much the process involves the same work we do with firms to help them find new markets that allow them to apply their strengths to earn higher margins with less competition.

Let’s start by talking about boxes.  We human beings are pattern-making engines.  We drive to work the same way every day, set our coffee on the same spot on our desk, and put our pencil in the same place in the drawer.  We have a calendar full of the same meetings, calls with similar customers, and trips to similar clients.

The reason for this, is because we simply need patterns to survive and thrive.  If we needed to do everything new every day, the cognitive load on our brains would be exhausting.  Patterns allow us to put a whole lot of life on autopilot so we can apply our fresh thinking to a small list of those areas that will give us good, fresh results.

In business, we tend to build and reinforce the same products and services to the same clients and customers, which leads to specialization around those tasks and activities.  We get so good at these specialized tasks that they suddenly become as important as the reason why we did them in the first place.

We promote these specialists, not so much for their creativity, but for their ability to bring efficiency and reliability.  This makes sense because our stakeholders like repeatable predictable returns – and who wouldn’t.

You’ve probably already gathered what this really does is build a “box.” Not only is this box a resilient one, but it’s hard to break out of as we are all cross connected around a tight “mission,” and work hard to eliminate distractions.

So guess how this plays out in the “escape room.”

Pattern Matching

When we are first put into a new space what is the most natural thing to do?  It’s to use the skills and patterns that got us here to help us get to the new place…“empty our pockets” so to speak of our individual skills and abilities and apply them to familiar patterns.  It was fun to see how we all did this: the IT person sat at the computer terminal, the operations person took inventory and the creative examined the photos, objects and artwork.

In business, this happens all the time when we are presented with a competitive threat.  We call our session, sit in the same chairs and build a solution based on the same patterns that are so familiar.  Most of the time it works well. However, eventually we get into the same thing that happened in World War I: even though enormous amounts of manpower were being consumed, both sides stubbornly competed at the same front, with the same tactics for months, with no progress.

Decoding Random Data

Well, back to the room.  We heard a teletype like sound, and a clue arrived on the terminal.  It was a helpful bit that allowed us to begin decoding a part of the room in a new and unique way.  It took all of us to do it, and once complete, we put the answer in the terminal and got the next bit.  It was remarkable how a snippet of data could allow us to focus and make progress.

In our businesses, random data bits come in every day.  I can guarantee you that after doing this for a while, the vast majority of these disconfirming clues are lost in your firm.  It’s not that you don’t have great people, it’s just that our human need for similar patterns pushes us to ignore and defer working on anything that doesn’t fit.

Retracing our Steps with New Insight

The deeper we got into the puzzle, the harder it was to use the clue and get the answer.  Our individual strengths became much less useful – even distracting at times.  We needed to have conversation, throw out insights, and describe what we saw (and how it might be useful).  We needed to have people who were integrators and were able to restate, allowing us to draw connections that none of us had seen.  Many times we needed to back up and try again.  This is a messy way to make headway, but oh so effective in finding our way with new challenges.

In business, when we need to find that new market, many times we reach those points when we hit an impasse.   The way forward is frequently a step back to reexamine our assumptions that got us to this point and do some careful focused experimentation.  By setting aside a small group and some focused budget, we frequently can unlock insights in a new way.

The real power to move forward comes from working as a group to unpack these insights, and having the trust to listen to one another’s observations…candid insights that only come from great relationships.  Great teams meet choices, put muscle behind intuition, and pick up on small but important threads that point the way through.

Those Times When it Gets Tense

I don’t mind sharing that we are competitive group, and we love to win.  We fought like family, and laughed like children.  We also saw people in new ways with new skills, and rich backgrounds that we didn’t anticipate.

Inevitably, when a business takes a new path, there any many significant hurdles that remain once the initial insight has been produced.  Finding the challenge and stamina to see it through is a key skill and need.  Ultimately, the firm moves from one box to another – we call this “unfreeze and “refreeze” based on the childhood playground game

So, Did You Make It?

Why yes, we did…and with only minutes to spare on our 60-minute target.  Did we best our colleagues in the adjacent room?  Sorry, sworn to secrecy.

Pulling it Together

A few takeaways from this experience:

  1. We all like patterns and they serve us well – until they don’t
  2. There are clues in your firms that are not being collected or acted on
  3. You will initially want to apply individual strengths and competency to finding the new space, but only collective group work will help you find it
  4. Once you find it, you will face resistance… and you need to keep the prize in sight to establish it.

If you are a P&L leader that needs to find that new box to complete in, we should talk.  I’ve spent decades helping teams through these challenges, and have assembled many tools and techniques to allow your team’s competence to accelerate the formation of new value.

You’ve probably gathered that there are a large number of process details, decision-making methodology and facilitation know-how that go into doing this well.  If you’d like to have a deeper dive on how this all works, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

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