Practical examples of lateral thinking in the workplace
Differentiate … stop competing!
Lateral thinking to improve your bottom line
“Stop competing” example
Lateral thinking tool in play: RANDOM STARTING POINTS
I was appointed General Manager of a group of Australian auction centers … an industry I knew little about.
Let that sink in for a moment . . .
“I was given the top job despite not having specific experience”
(Why are top jobs often given to people with little or no specific experience? Blinkered Thinking)
The company was in serious financial difficulty.
General auction is “slim pickings” . . . basically, the idea is (or was) to keep the doors open and hope to pick up a “forced” liquidation or major stock clearance with some sort of regularity.
The managers assured me that they had submitted for every known receivership and forced liquidation, and the ONLY reason they didn’t win a proposal was because of the undercutting of rates by competitors. The competition was tough, with strong downward pressure on commissions.
The task at hand was to find a differentiated niche market that would provide reliable profit with minimal competition.
I called a meeting of senior staff. It didn’t take long for the topics to go stale, the “excuses” to become repetitive, and the mood … defeatest!
“There was a sort of unstated consensus in the room that my appointment to the top job was a huge mistake”
‘Please open a magazine to a random page?’ I asked one of the managers, quite unexpectedly. ‘Without looking at the page, point to a random position. What’s the nearest noun or verb?’
‘I’m pointing to a picture of a man sitting at a desk,’ he answered.
‘Okay, it seems to me that we’re extremely competitive in the auction marketplace, and maybe that’s the problem. Competition drives down . . . ‘
I deliberately left the sentence hanging.
‘Profit?’ said a nervous young manager.
‘Exactly. Competition drives down profit, so let’s keep our competing to a minimum.’
‘How?’ it was a chorus of like minds now.
Competition Vs Differentiation
‘Okay, we’ll use “desk” as a RANDOM STARTING POINT to begin some original thinking,’ I said, to some very confused faces. ‘Give me some thoughts around the word “desk”.’
The young manager eventually shot to his feet.
‘We’re selling “seconds” for a local office furniture manufacturer.’
‘Okay, is that profitable?’
‘No. Office furniture has become too competitive with all the cheap stuff coming in from China.’
‘China!’ I might have startled him. ‘All this new competition from China is driving a lot of businesses to the wall. Let’s seek them out BEFORE they get into receivership. Even if they’re not at risk of going under, maybe they’ve had enough of the low-profit environment and want to get out of business economically and quickly?’
I took the young manager for an impromptu visit to the furniture manufacturer. Four hours later, we had an agreement in place to market and sell everything “NO RESERVE”.
It was the beginning of a new strategy of building close relationships with businesses that were impacted by cheap imports. Lateral thinking had “disrupted” the established ways we thought about doing business.
“Lateral thinking disrupts what exists and frees your mind to consider alternatives”
Random Starting Points became a regular feature at every meeting of management.
It was fun, team building, and it consistently drove the focus of our meetings towards differentiated, non-competitive thinking.
RSPs weren’t the only lateral thinking tool we used, but they were enthusiastically and regularly employed to a wide variety of challenges and opportunities.
It was a big company, and a change in culture happens slowly in a company of that size. However, as the business gradually shifted the focus of its activities away from competing and instead focused on differentiated opportunities, it thrived and grew.
“The introduction of some very simple techniques of disruptive creativity into our meetings helped me shift the focus away from competing”
A simple example of the effective use of one of my favorite lateral thinking tools. (See the Random Starting Point free lesson for a deeper understanding.)
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Change business/workplace outcomes … learn to think creatively:
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“Never enough leads” example
Tool in play: CREATIVE COMBINATIONS
My advertising agency job title was NEW BUSINESS ACCOUNT DIRECTOR. I was young, enthusiastic, and determined to blaze a trail LOL.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d taken on one of the toughest, (if not the toughest), jobs in the advertising industry. There had been a long line of people before me that had tried and failed. Nobody wanted to know me as they assumed I would fail also.
I decided to turn things around.
The agency specialized in real estate and recruitment, and I was expected to prospect within those categories. However, after breaking the rules and speaking directly to the creative staff, I realized that they had diverse experience outside those narrow categories.
I approached the Creative Director (first) and asked him what his passion was … boats. He said that he’d love to have a little diversity in the creative demands and we agreed to work TOGETHER to bring on something from the boating field. A few months later we had LLOYD’S SHIPS.
It was the beginning of something … “combining” the passions of staff with the problem of recruiting new business.
I wasn’t alone … I found myself with an enormous swell of support and creative thinking about new business opportunities. With the agency personnel so solidly behind me, it was always going to succeed
The agency grew and diversified.
Success breeds strong bonds and powerful friendships. Thirty years later, I’m still close to more than a dozen of the great people I worked with at that agency.
CREATIVE COMBINATIONS had focused and energized the agency’s thrust for new business under my leadership.
(See the Creative Combinations free lesson for a deeper understanding.)
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Stop competing! Be a business leader!!
Businesses must always focus on profitability. At the end of the day, if you ain’t making money, you can’t pay decent wages, performance bonuses, or look after yourself either.
The disruptive creativity of my free lateral and creative thinking course challenges the “experts” to find new ways to differentiate … to profit.
Seriously, do the frigging course and brighten your future.
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“Opening new doors” example
Tool in play: ALTERNATE PERSPECTIVES
I was employed as the Sales and Marketing Manager of an Australian company that manufactured a high-quality, and environmentally friendly, building material for use in commercial construction. Being Australian made, it had a price that was significantly above its imported competitors. The business was struggling.
I called a meeting of the State Managers and Senior Sales Representatives. They had very clear views on what needed to be done …
“We need to reduce our prices … to compete”
Dropping the price wasn’t an option. There was no “fat to trim” unfortunately.
I decided to employ a disruptive lateral thinking technique called “Alternative Perspective” in order that we consider the client’s/buyer’s perspective … by role-playing a typical visit to a potential customer.
I called one of the building/construction companies that weren’t using our product …
“. . . $5,000 free product for your next construction if you could please come to our office and help us to understand why our Australian manufactured product isn’t being specified by major builders”
The builder thought the approach seemed genuine enough and agreed to come to my office the next morning. Graciously, he told me he couldn’t accept the free product, but he was happy enough to help our cause without reward.
Next, I told our highest-performing Sales Representative of the visit and asked him to prepare to role-play as if it were a real sales visit in the builder’s office. Senior management, State Managers, and key salespeople were invited to “watch on”
The Presentation Next Morning …
The presentation from the Sales Rep to the builder was … Brilliant!
Honestly, I’d assumed that the sales skills of the staff would be poor … to match the sales. Instead, the rep clearly explained the focus of our production, highlighted the environmental positives, explained how the Australian product had greater fire-retardancy and pushed the Australian content to perfection.
I asked the builder what he thought of the presentation …
‘It was great. Maybe it was a little longer than I’d hoped for,’ he chuckled. ‘But how much does it cost? I need to keep my costs down to remain competitive’
“How much does it cost?”
Straight away, the builder reinforced EXACTLY what the troops on the ground had been telling me.
Here was my opportunity to turn things around.
‘Do you ever specify products that aren’t the cheapest? And if so, why?’ I asked.
The Alternative Perspective …
The builder stopped to think seriously about the questions before replying …
‘Sometimes, yes, we do. Sometimes using a high-quality product can actually save you time and cost … but your product doesn’t do that’
One of the State Managers (who knew a lot more about the product than I did) shot to his feet and asked the builder …
‘If our product included a “fall arrest” that eliminated the need to install one separately …’
The builder didn’t even let him finish the sentence he was that certain we were onto something.
Three months later, we were “price-competitive” through a simple design innovation that provided for a safety specification that was a unique requirement of Australian building codes.
Our overseas competitors couldn’t offer the same innovation.
We were differentiated!
How powerful was that?
ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVE evolved our product to give us an edge.
(See the Alternative Perspectives free lesson for a deeper understanding.)
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Make differentiation a habit
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“Don’t pick fights you can’t win” example
Tool in play: CHALLENGE EXISTING CONCEPTS
A small chain of auto wreckers invited our advertising agency to competitively pitch for their business.
THE BRIEF: Make their advertising and branding more effective against strong competition.
The “normal” advertising agency procedure in these circumstances is to “answer the brief” … to compete for the clients’ business.
The disruptive process of lateral thinking is about “not competing” though.
The wreckers spent an awful lot of money promoting themselves … car, bike, and truck racing, signage, auto magazines, and classified advertising (this was before the internet of course). They tried to have a substantial or dominating influence in nearly every media typically supported by their industry (competitors).
The target audience was typically male, under 50, heavily into car racing and car restoration, that were extremely sensitive to PRICE!
“They were heavily competing for a small market and making very little money”
So. instead of answering their brief, we asked the question …
“Why do you compete so heavily for such a limited market?”
The question intrigued them.
The wreckers told us that a high-quality used part usually sold for about a quarter of the price of the new equivalent … competition had driven the prices to record lows.
Instead of competing with other wreckers, we asked if it might be possible to position them as if competing with NEW parts sellers instead … to recreate their image/brand as an “alternative to a new parts” retailer.
Three months later:
Customers walked into clean retail showrooms that featured “specials” and “projects”. They were professionally served by people with clean hands and clothes. Most of the smaller items even came in new packaging. Prices were double that of other wreckers … even more … even much more than double.
It turned out to be a huge success.
Our advertising agency would always challenge preconceptions when pitching for new business.
It was a strategy that didn’t always win the business … but when we did win, we won it in a non-competitive environment (which allowed us to charge whatever we liked LOL).
Our profits were very high, and so too were the profits of clients that employed our strategies.
CHALLENGING EXISTING CONCEPTS is something the “experts” rarely do.
(See the Challenge Existing Concepts free lesson for a deeper understanding.)
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One of my favorite tools of disruption in business is “po” (provocative operation). Disrupt what you don’t like and see what happens LOL.
Take a look here at real-life examples of “po” in play.
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More examples coming soon.
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