Getting Outside the Box

It’s a cliché that “thinking outside the box” is a key to successful innovation.  But how do you do that – particularly if you are inside the box yourself, surrounded, of course, by people (trapped) in the box with you?

The answer is obvious, but very hard for most people in boxes to accept.  You have to welcome (creative and smart) people from outside the box on to the innovation team – and not just as tokens, but as critical players.

The idea of looking outside the box for key innovation teammates raises two questions.  First, why is it so hard to get the people inside the box to accept the outsiders?  And, second, what kind of “outside the box” people do we want (it being clear, I think, that being an outsider is not by itself sufficient to establishing that someone is a good outside the box innovator for your opportunity).

As to the first question, the challenge is getting the “experts” in a field – the consummate “inside the box” players – to acknowledge that with respect to innovation they are severely handicapped because they are experts.  It’s the God Complex at work.  Have you, as a layman, ever tried to talk with a doctor as an equal?  No offense intended, but most doctors don’t take well to input from those of us without medical licenses.  And, to be fair, more often than not they are right.  But innovation isn’t about what happens “more often than not.” It’s about what happens only now and then, when the experts in the box realize that innovation is more often driven from the outside than from the inside.

A case in point: the biotechnology revolution in the pharmaceutical industry.  Messrs. Watson and Crick “discovered” the double-helix model of DNA in the 1950s.  For the next two decades, the “box” they created was an amazing engine of scientific innovation – innovation “inside the box” they had created.  It took non-scientists – chief among them a 27 year old venture capitalist with an MBA rather than an MD or PhD named Bob Swanson – to see the commercial potential inherent in genetic engineering.  It was largely his vision – as an outside the box thinker – that led to the formation of Genentech, and his leadership as CEO that took Genentech public and launched the biotechnology revolution in medicine.  It is a story that has been repeated hundreds of times over the last thirty years, as creative “outsiders” have teamed with leading scientific “insiders” to revolutionize the pharmaceutical business.

If Genentech and the biotech revolution in the pharmaceutical business show the importance of leveraging “insiders” with “outsiders” on innovation teams, it also illustrates what to look for in selecting outsiders for your innovation team.  Good “outside the box” innovators are rare, but they are out there.  Their skill set is typically complimentary to the skill sets of leading inside the box thinkers.

Where good insiders tend to be very deep, but narrow, thinkers, outsiders tend to be very broad, but not-so-deep thinkers.  Good outside-the-box innovators are the renaissance folks of our times.  Where insiders tend to be good communicators with themselves and, to varying degrees, with their fellow insiders, outsiders tend to be good at communicating with both insiders and outsiders; which is to say, they tend to be good at translating concerns and visions across boxes.  Where insiders tend to focus on what they know, outsiders tend to focus on what they don’t know – which is to say, as well, that while insiders tend to ask the next logical question, outsiders tend to ask the next important question.  And finally (I think) where insiders tend to be defensive about what they don’t know, outsiders enjoy asking, and pondering, the tough questions.

Getting good insiders to work with good outsiders is an often overlooked key to innovation.  And, while the burden falls on both parties to make it happen, as often as not it’s the outsiders that drive the process.

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About Paul A. Jones

Serial venture capital backed entrepreneur, angel investor and venture capital investor; Co-chair of the VentureBest team at Michael Best & Friedrich, LLP.
This entry was posted in Entrepreneurship, Venture Captal and Angel Investing. Bookmark the permalink.

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