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Business beyond the box


by John O’Keeffe, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1998.


Four of the world’s most creative thinkers are going to work for you for a month. What aspects of your business would be worthy of their attention? The author offers thinking strategies which they might employ, avoiding information overload, using more than just logic, and seeking for major breakthroughs rather than merely steady incremental improvement.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in June 2001)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Imagine that four of the world’s best creative, practical thinkers are available to you for a month. Assume they have had training in your business and industry so they have all the relevant knowledge. What goal would you have them work on? What would you want them to tackle together for a month? Do you have a goal, a dream or a vision that would be worth their time and talent?

This is one of many exercises and techniques that John O’Keeffe suggests can help you and your organisation identify the kind of step-change goal that he believes is necessary for business survival in future. If you don’t have a goal that is worthy of the world’s four best thinkers, he says, you aren’t thinking big enough. Force yourself and your organisation to come up with something that would be worth the attention of the world’s four best brains for a month.

O’Keeffe believes that faster rates of change in the business environment mean we need to get ‘out of our boxes’ just to adapt to the changes taking place, let alone to develop a competitive edge for the future. He cites strategy guru Gary Hamel who warns that ‘corporations around the world are reaching the limits of incrementalism. Pursuing incremental improvements, while rivals reinvent the industry, is like fiddling while Rome burns’.

What is required is an ability to create a flow of ideas that will bring about a step-change in actual results. This obviously demands a lot of creative thinking. Our mind is a brilliant personal computer but unfortunately most us don’t know how to operate it, says O’Keeffe. The only thinking strategy most of us know is logical analysis and the only alternative strategy we know is a vague form of brainstorming which rarely delivers. What we need is what O’Keeffe calls ‘triangular thinking’.

O’Keeffe has some impressive credentials for making these assertions. He was a Group Vice President for Procter & Gamble at the time he wrote this book, with wide international experience in marketing and general management. His book is the result, he tells us, of several years ‘practising what I preach and preaching what I practise’.

He asks us to apply our minds to eight thinking strategies that are based on his concept of triangular thinking. Linear or vertical thinking was always close to tunnel thinking, he concludes. Lateral thinking came along and brought a breadth of thought but often produced ideas too impractical for business. Triangular thinking claims to get around these limitations by focusing directly on bottom-line business results. It involves doing three things together: picturing a step-change, building know-how, and using creative thinking - all focused on achieving real-world results.

O’Keeffe claims that his techniques are effective because:

They are ‘Monday morning do-able’

Everyone can use them today. The book provides many simple examples, tips and exercises to illustrate the techniques. Not all of it has to be applied from day one. O’Keeffe bets that even five or ten per cent of the techniques applied 30 per cent of the time could dramatically change your results.

They are proven in practice

The book is written by a senior executive in a major multinational company (and one of the world’s most successful marketing firms at that). O’Keeffe says he has used these techniques to get breakthrough results in a wide range of businesses and that the ideas are proven in the heat of battle. His successes have not been about better management, better administration or incremental improvements. Rather, they have concerned making organisations ‘cut loose from the limited mindsets of the present and the past and adopt new mindsets to bring breakthrough success in the future’.

They are directed towards achieving results

The book focuses each individual’s thinking and energies directly on how to get step-change results, in contrast to what O’Keeffe sees as ‘indirect or interim activities’ like team-building or empowerment. The latter are helpful, he claims, but essentially tangential in their contribution to step-change results. A sustained focus on breakthrough results will have a much bigger impact - like perhaps doubling profit and sales, or halving cost and time to market.

O’Keeffe offers us eight thinking strategies that form what he terms an ‘arrow of breakthrough’. The first three form the arrowhead and the next five form the strands of the arrow’s shaft. The arrowhead strategies consist of:

  • Picture a step-change versus Happy doing a bit better
  • Build know-how versus Drown in information
  • Use creative thinking versus Logic alone

Too many organisations, says O’Keeffe, try to achieve breakthrough results by using only one of these elements at any time. That is not enough. The secret is to focus on these three elements together. This means picturing step-change goals; searching for and building the specific knowledge that will help to achieve them; and using creative thinking to generate action steps to hit those goals.

It is easy to get creative thinking from those with no knowledge, the young and inexperienced ones in the organisation. But these ideas tend go nowhere because of that very lack of knowledge. Similarly, it is easy to get those with knowledge thinking only logically. That is the way most middle managers attempt to maintain the status quo, and it will result in incrementalism at best. The beginnings of business beyond the box come when you get people with knowledge thinking creatively. That is the start of powerful action steps.

It also begins to solve the problem that many organisations face of striking a balance between keeping managers continually in a job to develop expertise and knowledge and making a change, even if the newcomer has no knowledge, in order to get the benefit of a fresh mindset. Being able to get fresh mindsets in people who already have expertise and knowledge is more likely to yield the potential for breakthrough results.

As a simple example in action, O’Keeffe says consider a global brand whose market share in a particular country has been 8 per cent, 9 per cent and 10 per cent. What should its share target be for next year? Under the system of incrementalism, the likely tendency will be for the country organisation to suggest and defend a target of 10.5 per cent as achievable. Using triangular thinking, however, the local organisation would not look at its own historical performance for a target. Instead, it would look outwards to identify the highest market share achieved by the brand in other countries. Managers would then seek to find out how that country achieved its (say) 30 per cent share. They would then use creative thinking to reapply and adapt what they had learned to achieve 30 per cent in their own market. The two thinking systems are distinctly different and will produce different action steps and different results.

The three arrowhead strategies are supported by five other strategies:

Act in the action zone versus Act without thinking

This addresses the need to take action. Many people will become impatient with any thinking strategy unless it results in action or if it delays action too much. Many action-oriented people and organisations, however, don’t spend enough time creating alternatives and decide too fast on the few created. You have to make sure you’re acting on the right problem. This means continuously reviewing whether the problem or opportunity you are working on is fully in line with the first strategy of step-change versus doing a bit better. Take time to consider whether there are enough alternatives or whether you are choosing between them too early. There are many occasions when a little more thought will create a much better solution. Too often, in meetings, we give a problem an hour’s discussion without ever giving it a minute’s thought.

Become a whole-brained versus A half-brained organisation

Maximise the power of your thinking on any strategy by adding right-brained imagination and gut-feeling to left-brained reasoning. The techniques for becoming whole-brained are relatively easy and we already do some of them by instinct but we need to find a way to apply them systematically and thoroughly to what we do. To engage the right brain, we can use colour and pictures, metaphors and analogies, and stories as well as data. O’Keeffe notes that the left and right hemispheres of the human brain are connected by a chord called the corpus callosum. This is significantly thicker in females than in males and he speculates whether this would explain women’s more frequent use of intuition or their ability to switch more rapidly between logic and emotions. Whether this is true or not, we can all learn, he says, to engage both halves of the brain at will.

Choose powerful versus Limiting mindsets

It is very easy to adopt a limiting mindset without realising it. Once you have such an outlook, your mind is very good at spotting only the data that reinforces it. There is too much information and too many signals so that the brain has to be selective about what it decides to notice rather than just see. That is why supposedly very intelligent people and very smart organisations have blind spots or turn a deaf ear to things. The brain misses data because it is not looking for it. What the brain selects to focus on is determined by the mindset we choose. So, choose a mindset that it might be possible to double profits in two years’ time and consider how it might be done if you had to do it. You will then see possibilities and opportunities that you would not have spotted before.

Use mindmaps, thinking hats and thinking pads instead of Meetings and memos

Don’t try to change the culture of the organisation, just change the habits. Changing its habits on only two things - meetings and memos - will make an enormous difference. Far too much of people’s time, talent and thinking energy in organisations (O’Keeffe estimates 80 per cent) are taken up by meetings and memos. We need to release that talent and time to work towards breakthrough results. So, for example, instead of the mayhem that is the reality of so many meetings, use ‘six-hat thinking’ to get everyone thinking on the same wavelength. (This involves getting the group to ‘put on’ a white ‘hat’ when it is seeking facts and figures, switching perhaps to a ‘red’ hat to talk about emotions and hunches, or putting on a green ‘hat’ to suggest alternatives). Also, use mindmaps to build and present ideas rather than traditional linear techniques of notes and memos which inhibit creativity. O’Keeffe has himself devised and patented what he calls ‘Mindsoftware’ pads, examples of which are given in the book. These are notepads (‘interactive software for the cranial computer ’), designed to trigger the whole brain through visuals and colour. Individuals or teams can use them to stimulate triangular thinking and to generate ideas on each of the eight thinking strategies.

Recharge yourself and get on fire versus Continuing to assume that working ever longer, ever harder is best

The last of the eight strategies is directed towards achieving and maintaining both a positive attitude and high levels of energy. These, of course, are difficult to sustain when faced with every day realities. O’Keeffe says that resting periodically, through holidays or relaxing each evening, is important but is not enough. You get on fire by gaining fulfilment outside work rather than using time outside work to get a rest or relief from work. You can only achieve fulfilment if you know the balance of goals you want to achieve across all areas of your life and are taking action to achieve them. On a daily basis, you need to start the day by taking some positive action to get in a good spirit. During the working day, insist on doing only the most important things. Don’t do things that seem worthwhile but stop you having time for the things that are really most important. The only person who got everything done by Friday was Robinson Crusoe, says O’Keeffe.

His book devotes a chapter, replete with examples and exercises, to each of the thinking strategies. O’Keeffe recommends that, as readers work with the strategies, they keep two operating principles in mind that will make them very powerful. First, use push as well as pull. An attractive, powerful vision is not enough. We need the sort of stimulus provided by a crisis which, by definition, dictates that the status quo is unacceptable because it won’t produce the needed results. The key to step-change is to retain the underlying forces of a crisis when the crisis is over by making the current situation untenable, as well as making a different future attractive.

Secondly, use the heart as well as the head. People will do far greater things if they have passion and inspiration rather than being merely intellectually in agreement. The power of the brain is huge when both the logical left half and the emotional right half are used synergistically. The right half of the brain can be engaged with the sort of images, metaphors and pictures used in rousing speeches and motivational sales meetings. Power will come from the ‘sales meeting culture’ as well as the ‘financial report culture’.

We don’t have to agree with all of O’Keeffe’s ideas. Some people may find his recommendations on sustaining high energy levels and achieving crisis-like performance without the crisis somewhat unrelenting. However, there is plenty of very useful (and fun) material in this book for helping managers to think more ambitiously and effectively. (Some of the exercises could well help in the search for ‘the big idea’ which is the subject of the other book reviewed this month.) O’Keeffe’s techniques have certainly attracted a wide audience. Since writing the book, he has left P&G to become a keynote speaker at top management conferences around the world and to run master classes on ‘business beyond the box’ for senior executives. If his book is anything to go by, these classes are intensive and challenging experiences. Ask yourself again the question that he undoubtedly asks his participants: Does your organisation have a goal worthy of the world’s four best brains?

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