Thinking Outside The Box

Who moved my cheese?

Recently I met a client in a local pub restaurant for a coaching session over lunch. The pub has a good reputation and is usually busy with the usual mix of business groups and silver surfers spending their final salary pensions. Being lunchtime the menu was a little shorter than for an evening, but there was still a nice choice. That was until the waitress advised us that three items on the menu were unavailable, because they contained cheddar and the delivery hadn’t arrived.

As this was explained to us, my client (a very successful local entrepreneur) and I glanced around the restaurant to see three or four waitresses stood with nothing to do (we were in early). Simultaneously we both thought through the situation. No cheddar. Spare staff. An enormous Sainsbury’s less than five minutes away. Surely this problem could be solved?

A few years ago I was with a group of clients dining at a restaurant in Victoria, central London. One of our group ordered a gin and tonic, only to be told they had sold out of tonic. Again, a handful of business owners collectively remembered the Tesco Express across the street as we came in. Surely this problem could be solved?

Blinkered Thinking

In both cases the issue probably wasn’t that the staff were particularly dim and that we had amazing insight. More likely, their group thinking was just blinkered and channelled into “the cheese/tonic comes from the supplier and so if they don’t deliver customers can’t have it”. There was a process for buying cheese and if that failed, the only thing to do was scrap a segment of the menu.

Similarly, the staff’s thinking was blinkered to be just that of the restaurant, not that of the customer. The restaurant knew that they had other menu options, or other drinks, available so where’s the problem? But the customer came in that day to have their needs fulfilled. And if that was for macaroni cheese, their experience (and therefore their total spend, gratuity, likelihood to return, Google Review and future referrals) was diminished. For the sake of a ten minute trip to Sainsbury’s, the customer, and thus ultimately the restaurant, loses out.

Perhaps the staff deserve greater credit – perhaps they considered it and thought that the cost of wholesale cheddar versus retail cheddar meant it was too expensive. They could be right. But it is still blinkered thinking. What profitability was lost by having disappointed customers? More than that lost by a day’s supply of cheddar? No one took off the blinkers and saw the bigger picture.

My own blinkered thinking leads me to make assumptions about the culture in the team running the pub. It would appear there was no lateral thinking – none of the waiting staff, each time they repeated the news of the cheddar shortage, thought outside the box and suggested to the landlord/chef that they nipped down the road. Without that sort of thinking, what sort of innovation and creativity are they missing out on?

What’s the equivalent of the missing cheddar for you? Where are you disappointing customers because you’re stuck in a process? Where is your thinking blinkered? How would you know?

And if you do know, how can you address it?

Taking The Blinkers Off

How might you encourage more lateral or innovative thinking in your business or life? My suggestions:

  • Continuously expose your thinking to new influences and challenge your orthodoxies. Read books, watch films, listen to podcasts or talk to people with ideas or views different to your own. Try to understand their viewpoint, not change it. Shake your brain cells a little bit!

  • Visit new places or see new cultures to get a different perspective on how things could be done. That could be different industries, different segments in your market or different geographies (there is quite a variation in the UK, you don’t have to go to the jungles of Laos to see difference).

  • A project management technique is to view your project, process or service from afar and ask “in what ways could this go wrong” – look for the gaps, vulnerabilities or holes in the project. This helps you strengthen the process, but also trains you (and your team’s) collective brains to think laterally.

  • Be a customer. Experience your service as a customer. Or experience a competitor’s service and see how it feels to be a customer. Unless you’re Dignitas , every business can benefit from having staff know what it feels like to be the buyer.

  • Have your customer journey assessed independently, so that you get direct feedback that challenges your blinkered thinking. If you’re in hospitality particularly, or any service business I highly recommend this (and recommend you talk to Janet at The Silent Customer).

  • Have an external coach who can bring perspective, ask challenging questions and deliberately test your assumptions, in an objective, unemotional and supportive way. As it happens, that’s what I do… Call me.

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