Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot on National Public Radio about “outsiders.” One program cited a study which found that people who have lived in foreign countries are more resourceful and score higher on insight puzzles than those who haven’t. It seems that having your cultural assumptions turned upside down forces you to be creative in problem-solving.
Then 99 Percent Invisible explained how Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital brought in consultants from the Toyota company in Japan to improve their bottom line. What could a carmaker possibly know about improving a hospital’s management? Quite a lot, it turned out.
First, the staff was given a ball of blue yarn and a map of the hospital and told to trace the path a cancer patient would take for chemotherapy. When they saw the multiple twists, turns, and loops stretching from one end of the building to the other, the staff understood for the first time that they were making their sickest patients—people dragging oxygen tanks behind them—waste huge amounts of their time and energy. Virginia Mason took the outside offices of the doctors, with the big windows, and turned them into waiting rooms with waterfalls. They grouped their services close together. Revenues increased. (Naturally, not everybody was on board with this. Some doctors quit.)
The first program also spoke about a website whose name I wrote down and promptly lost, on which Fortune 500 companies like Proctor & Gamble and GE post problems their scientists can’t solve. Thirty-three percent or so find solutions from random people posting on the page! Why? Because they’re outside the industry. For example, one problem that was baffling a number of chemists was solved by a microbiologist.
There is even a book out called The Outsiders Who Foresaw the Subprime Crisis. (Bolding by me.) And, I guess there is a reason for the aphorism “He couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”
Now, I’m usually in favor of promoting from within. Chances are, you have someone in your company who already knows the culture, your product and/or customer base, has given you their loyalty, and is deserving of a chance. But what if you don’t?
If you keep on looking at a problem in the same old way, the shows pointed out, you’ll keep on getting the solutions you’ve always gotten. When those aren’t good enough, what do you do? In the case of a puzzle, turn it upside down. In business, why not consider hiring someone from a completely different industry? Someone retired, with a wealth of work and life experience under their belt. Or someone you normally wouldn’t consider. They just might be able to see things in a way you can’t. And sometimes, that makes all the difference.