It’s No Fun Being The Only One Outside The Box


Think-Outside-The-Box1The following is an excerpt from Think Sideways: a game-changing playbook for disruptive thinking by Tamara Kleinberg.

I have the honor of interacting with a lot of different people across the country. Some work in the field of innovation, others are entrepreneurs, and some are college students. Funny thing is that across all types of people I hear the same complaint. I hear people “blame” the other side for not responding well to their ideas. They describe it as feeling like a one-way tennis match where they are constantly serving the ball but no one is on the other side to hit it back. I hear statements like:

“We’re being innovative but they keep shutting it down.”

“I’m bringing ideas to the table but they are so closed-minded and don’t hear them.”

“They are risk adverse and I’m not.”

Sound familiar? “They” are a tough crowd to please, and clearly never see the value in your wildly brilliant, uncharted-terri­tory thinking. But here is where I’m going to push your buttons. “They” are not the problem. You are.

It’s 2007, and my team and I were about to present our new ideas for baby care to one of the largest baby care brands in the US and abroad. We had spent 6 months doing research, brainstorming, and developing a pipeline of new prod­uct ideas. We thought they were brilliant. Our main client thought they were brilliant. So there we stood, behind the podium in the CEO’s boardroom.

There was barely any space to move because of the oddly large wood conference table surrounded by plush-but-dated swivel chairs. On the walls were the typical oil paintings of past CEOs. We watched as our client, our client’s boss, the boss’s boss, and every other person of note walked into the room, ready to be dazzled with the next big multi-million dollar idea. I was sure we had a few, so I couldn’t wait to get started. I introduced the team and then stood aside as they presented the ideas, one by one.

To my right I kept hearing whispers. At first I thought nothing of it, but after a few slides of rude whispering I tuned in to listen. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Mustache man can’t remember his real name, yet I will never forget the Magnum PI mustache covering his face kept leaning into my client and saying things like, “Haven’t we tried that before?” “Didn’t we see that idea in 1999?” “Wasn’t someone working on something similar to that?”

I was getting angry. He was putting down every brilliant idea we had. Yes, maybe it is similar to that one in 1999, but don’t you see that times have changed and how we evolved the idea? No, I guess not.

Flying home was the longest plane ride ever. I was so angry at mustache man. What was his problem? It’s not my fault he had been at his job for 30 years and couldn’t think sideways anymore…or was it? I think I openly cursed mustache man for the next 48 hours, but as I was using inappropriate expletives, I realized something painful. Mustache man wasn’t actually the problem…I was.

I didn’t stop to get him out of his mundane thinking and into my world of thinking sideways. Of course he was jaded, and yes he had seen it all. As the sideways thinker, it was my job to help him take the journey with me, to get back to thinking sideways.

But I didn’t, and because I failed to see that critical piece, the ideas didn’t go anywhere but back to the shelf where I’m pretty sure they’re still collecting dust.

Had I taken the time upfront to figure out what he needed to get back to a place of leaning in and being open-minded, perhaps the meeting would have gone differently. Perhaps some of those ideas would be on the supermarket shelves today. But they aren’t, because I figured the clearly fantastic ideas would stand on their own, and by simply speaking to their merits, I would convince the group of seen-it-all executives that they had their next big-bang idea. It’s funny, even today, telling this story makes me a little sad and brings up feelings of regret. But on the flip side, mustache man changed my life and the lives of all who have been inspired to think sideways for the better.

Mustache man, if you’re reading this, contact me. I want to say thank you. Thank you for reminding me that as a sideways thinker it’s my duty to bring others along for the ride.

You have so many ideas that you just can’t help yourself. You have something to say at every meeting. An idea, a thought bubble, a nugget of an idea.

But, it feels like no one is listening to all your wildly inventive ideas that are clearly better than the status quo being bounced around the conference room for the 10th time. Let’s face it those ideas were lame to begin with.

It’s no fun being the only one outside the box. It’s lonely and frustrating. I challenge you to get over the “they” issue and not only work on being a maverick, but also work on getting others out of their myopic ways. I believe it’s your responsibility as the trailblazer to set a path so bright and so inclusive that others can’t help but go along for the ride. Watch out for the “they” comments. It might mean you aren’t doing your job as a big dreamer.

I was the keynote speaker at an annual conference for the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association. A lovely young woman named Christa came up to me, clearly wearing her frustration on her sleeve. She told me she loved my speech and that thinking sideways totally spoke to her. I saw that she definitely had something else to say so I asked her why she looked so concerned. She went on to share what I would call her life experience as a maverick. Over and over again, her ideas were shut down before even being considered. They were too weird, too out there, too new. She knew these ideas could produce big results, but no one was listening. It was happening at her current job and had been ever since she could remember, even in her college sorority.

If you are a maverick out there reading this book, you know where Christa is coming from. You’ve felt that shut down. If you are working towards being a maverick, be prepared. It could happen to you.

Unconventional ideas are a fundamental challenge to those with conventional thinking. They are unproven, untried, and have no data to prove their potential. Sideways ideas seem new to the world (even if they are just a tiny shift), which makes them a little scary. The ideas are based on intuition versus fact, gut versus data. We don’t always have a direct benchmark to prove their worth. And as Sideways Thinkers, we jump around trying to share ideas yet we have gaps because our thinking hasn’t been fully formed or is a work in progress. New ideas are hard to articulate yet critical to execute. We need new thinking and ideas in everything.

As a maverick myself, this has happened to me dozens, if not hundreds of times. But over time I got really good at getting the buy-in I need to move ideas forward. Her question got me thinking about how I do that. And, how all great mavericks do it…get others to be so passionate that they willingly come along for the ride. So Christa, and all you sideways thinkers out there that feel shut down and out of the conversation, here are some tools to help you bring your ideas to life.

What I Love About What You Said

If you really want to get someone excited about your ideas, give them credit. I’m not saying abdicate your own credit. You came up with it, so you deserve it. I’m saying, show them the link be­tween their thinking and your thinking. Explain your idea by sharing how their comment or email the other day led you to think about this new idea. If you want others to join you and march toward the unconventional, you need to make them a part of the vision. People want to feel important, and explaining how it was their genius point that led you to this idea is a great way to do that.

 Some might say this is manipulative, and perhaps sometimes it is. But I think of it more as reaching out with open arms and letting more people be a part of the genius of this brilliant idea that is about to rock their world. I found this tool particularly important when trying to get an idea to fly with my superiors.

If you work in a hierarchical company, this is especially true. In some ways, this tool is more work for you. It means you need to work double time listening and connecting the dots between their conventional thinking and your unconventional ideas. You have to be authentic about your intent to find the value in what they say.

“Brian, what you said the other day about customers needing to know all the information about insurance on the website got me thinking. What if we had a site that broke out the information in little thought bubbles, and they could click on different ones instead of one long laundry list of information. Given they need to see it all, as you pointed out, maybe we can up their engagement and keep them on the site long enough to read by offering some visually entertaining elements.”

A few more starters:

1. What I love about what you said is…

2. What I found interesting about what you said was…

3. What you said about ___________ really made me think…


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To learn more tools around fostering a culture of innovation get your copy of Think Sideways: a game-changing playbook for disruptive thinking. 

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