Thursday, May 30, 2024

Mad Ave. Insights




So where will you find the big idea that will propel your company to the leadership position you so desire or – to use the phrase you repeat to yourself – you so well deserve?

Before you start looking, the better idea is to start acknowledging that you will very likely find that big idea outside your knowledge and expertise, outside the knowledge and expertise of those who sit in your executive meetings and, as likely, outside your industry.

Some fifty top creative directors at major ad agencies working on Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies were asked how they came up with their very successful award-winning campaigns. Of course, being highly successful creative talents, each brought a very individual perspective to the question.

However, there was one commonality – all expressed the fact that when they were working on a project, they would look elsewhere. They would look outside the client’s product or service; they would look outside their client’s industry. They would sift through strategies and decisions of unrelated companies and campaigns. They understood that buried in there would be an insight that would help them on the path to solving their client’s needs.

These creative directors, and of course people who are successful in all roles in business, acknowledge that there are smart people out there. Smart people confronted with strategic problems that may touch upon the same problems they are exploring. And, if not, their processing of their problem, the pathways they choose, the applications they made, may have value to their clients’ or company’s problems.

An article in HBR points out the advantage of looking beyond your sphere of business: “…there’s great power in searching for ideas outside your field in an angulous companies. Looking to angulous companies often leads to radical innovation that you wouldn’t find sticking to your own field. People in analogous fields are drawing on a different wealth of knowledge and expertise and aren’t biased by existing principles and biases in your field.”

Every company, Fortune 100 included, will fall into the cognitive bias trap of “this is the way it’s been since our inception, and it’s worked.” Some like Kodak, Sears, and Nokia fall into the trap so deeply that they can’t get out.

The “this is the way it’s been done” thinking permeates a company at every level for two reasons. The first is that the executive or any employee came into the company with a responsibility to the “this is the way it’s done.” His assigned task, the reason for his hiring, is to be productive and efficient within this framework of his responsibility. He is put in a box, and looking outside the box is beyond his assigned position.

The second reason is simply fear: What if my idea is wrong? What if others think it’s a poor idea, even silly? How will my image, my reputation, my standing in the company suffer?

These cognitive biases are strong reasons, though not the only reasons, why strategy meetings at the beginning of the year sound very similar to last year’s. Ditto for Monday morning meetings. The underlying thinking is to stay the road. Looking outside your industry to gain a new perspective, insights, and ideas hold the threat that it may lead to shaking the tree, altering the tried and true. There is the strong cognitive bias against moving outside your comfort zone.

And to look outside your field puts a burden on you – you have to know what you are looking for.

What you are looking for, what problem needs a solution, has to be researched deeply until you are absolutely certain about your objective. As Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had one hour to solve a problem upon which the existence of the world depended, I would spend fifty-five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking of the solution.”

Where to look outside the box, what insights and ideas are relevant, is only possible when the problem you are addressing is absolutely clear.

Years ago, the 3M company, which has a surgical supply division, was focusing on how to prevent infections from occurring during surgery. They went outside their field and spoke to a professional make-up specialist. The nuts and bolts of the question: prevention of infection of products that adhere to the skin. Obviously, make-up artists who deal with everyone from super star winners to brides deal with the same issues but from a very different perspective. The solution may be in sourcing products that the 3M may never have thought about, or the adhesive used.

Another example: An in-line skating company sought to manufacture protection products as an extension of their product line. They turned to professional stunt men in the entertainment industry for insights, ideas and solutions.

When you look outside your industry, deep-diving into business magazines, reports, journals, etc., and speak to experts in analogous fields, you’re accessing insights and solutions that are related in your problem but were not inhibited and constrained by the narrow vision of your field.

The most important benefit of looking outside your field is that it disrupts the way you always think, the way the company always thinks. It forces you out of your comfort zone.

Processes and operations in every division, from sales and marketing to supply-sourcing and delivery, go beyond being methodologies to becoming rituals. Inviolate rituals. Your company can operate for years without anyone shaking it up.

In fact, continued success, as Kodak, Sears and Nokia have demonstrated, is the greatest danger. A mental certainty, a smugness, sets in. Innovative ideas that will continue to provide a competitive edge and allow the company to continue its commanding lead are never conceived, let alone see the light of day.

Looking at your industry is vital to help you stay up to date. But it will not radically alter your perspective. You and your competitors are dealing with similar issues, many times very similar industry problems. No one is coming up with solutions that dramatically alter the configurations of the industry.

Airbnb is a hospitality company. But the conception, testing, implementation, revising, and continuous evolution are not based on technology. They are based on the simple fact that the two individuals who conceived of, developed and grew the company did not come from the hospitality industry.

They were not constrained by the “this is the way it’s done” thinking of the industry. Nor were they constrained by industry procedures and standards. They were free to look at the problem with fresh eyes. So, their solution had none of the prerequisite heavy weights of real estate: location, location, location, purchase and building, taxes, and legal requirements,

Looking outside your industry gives your thinking the same freedom to access fresh, novel ideas and solutions.

The first step in looking outside your company is to define your problem. And then simplify. Edit. As example, the in-line skating company could have written the problem as “protective gear for children whose bones are still developing, and a fall can shatter elbow or knee joints requiring surgery.”

While statistically it may be true that young children have the most in-line skate falls, and such falls have severe, long-term repercussions, the real problem is awkward falls on a very hard surface. Stunt specialists have to deal with falls of every type, in every position, on every surface. They study the physical aspects, angles, speed and force of a fall, and derive solutions that are meaningful to the in-line skating company.

When the designers of the Japanese speed train were looking for ideas on how to design the engine, whose shape would be critical from an aerodynamic perspective, they looked outside their industry and looked even beyond airplanes and rockets. They reduced the problem to its simplicity – what design will produce the fastest speed.

The solution – the beak of the kingfisher bird, a bird that dives swiftly into a creek or river to snatch fish. Proportionately, the shape of the speed-train engine perfectly matches the angle and length of the kingfisher’s beak.

The two scientists, James Crick and Francis Watson, who discovered the DNA explained how they went about doing so. They were willing to embrace and attempt approaches that were outside their areas of familiarity. They did not follow patterns. They were not afraid of the unknown – or where the unknown would lead them. They were willing to ask questions, talk to others, and acquire different ideas and thoughts.

  1. Bogan and Michael J. English, authors of a guide on leadership and organizational learning, share a case study from business history that illustrates how accepted ideas from one field can quickly transform another field. In 1912, a curious Henry Ford watched men cut meat during a tour of a Chicago slaughterhouse. The carcasses were hanging on hooks mounted on a monorail. After each man performed his job, he would push the carcass to the next station. When the tour was over, the guide said, “Well, sir, what do you think?” Mr. Ford turned to the man and said, “Thanks, son. I think you may have given me a real good idea.” Less than six months later, the world’s first assembly line started producing magnetos in the Ford Highland Park Plant.

London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, renowned for its cardiac care, was struggling with poorly designed “handoffs” when it transferred patients from one step of a complex medical procedure to the next. Dr. Martin Elliot, head of cardiac surgery, and Dr. Allan Goldman, head of pediatric intensive care, studied highly experienced professionals from a totally unrelated field who were better than anyone at organizing handoffs — the pit crew of Ferrari’s Formula One racing team.

The doctors and the pit crew worked together at the team’s racing center in Italy, at the British Grand Prix, and in the hospital’s operating room. Members of the pit crew were struck by how clumsy the hospital’s handoff process was, not to mention the fact that it often lacked a clear leader. (In Formula One races, a so-called “lollipop man” wields an easy-to-see paddle and calls the shots.) Moreover, they noted how noisy the process was. Ferrari pit crews operate largely in silence, despite (or because of) the roar of engines around them. Thanks to the techniques they learned from these outsiders — techniques that were accepted wisdom in racing circles — the hospital redesigned its handoff procedures and sharply reduced medical errors.

Your business is restrained by cognitive bias blinders that inhibit you looking outside the narrow prism of your comfort zone.

Take off the blinders and you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to access innovative ideas.

You just have to look everywhere.


Interested in developing your creative thinking skills to grow your business? Maybe even disrupt your business category? Subscribe to my “Unleash Your Creative Thinking” free email course. Email, with “Creative Thinking” as the subject.




Chanina Katz has over two decades experience in major Madison Ave. ad agencies developing highly successful strategies and award-winning campaigns for such blue-chip clients as Colgate, RJ Reynolds, Hilton, Home Depot, General Mills, KFC and many others in a wide variety of package goods and services businesses. He provides marketing services for a range of businesses, from start-ups to major corporations. He lectures on marketing and creativity. He can be reached at







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