To think 'outside the box', first see what's inside the box

06 June 2017

Before hiring external consultants for any and every aspects of your business, first see what you can learn by applying common sense to available data, says Manoj Agarwal, co-founder of lifestyle events curator Xoxoday

Manoj AgarwalWhen we talk about creativity or innovation, we are constantly fed with the message 'Think outside the box'. I think most proponents of this cliche have rather misunderstood what it means. They have neglected the fundamental way of doing things. A new version is always an upgrade or increment over the existing. A new model comes because there is an existing model. Most of the innovations in the world come as increments from the existing. The point is there is an already existing box, why not check its contents first?

We just believe that ideas only come through unconventional or mystical ways. However, the real key to unleashing creativity is to think inside the box. Thinking outside the box will make sense only when you know what is inside the box. People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem and when they work within a boundary.

We are generally obsessed to gain insights from outside. However, most of the insights are 'in one's sight'. Whether you are looking to solve an existing problem or looking for an innovation, the best solutions arrive when you can see some insights which are generally in front of you but often ignored.

Often, we take our internal information and details for granted. Internal resources whether it's our teams, customer inputs, or financial data are very rich sources of insights. However, one must really take a deeper dive to get actionable insights from this information. We look outwards without checking answers which might lie so obviously in front of us. We seek answers from 'consultants' without answering obvious information available to us. Sometimes it's due to a myopic view on the power of information within, sometimes its sheer laziness. Sometimes we are not so confident inwards. Sometimes we want to put the burden of consequences to the external.

Many insights are very common sense (which is not so common though). Organizations can save lot of money and time by solving many problems if there is a conscious effort to think inwards and draw actionable insights. Drawing insights is sometimes a laborious task which requires going through lot of qualitative conversations.

Many a time, people tend to take the easy route to find answers from outside due to the rigour required to read through these insights internally.

External perspective is crucial, but only if a good homework on internal perspective has been done. One might end up spending a lot on getting same or even poorer input from the external, than one could have drawn internally. Organizations might get distracted with external data and go directionally wrong for the future. Thinking inside the box can bring lot of agility and a balance between present-future in the system.

Driving solutions through insights is a continuous process. A solution which failed earlier may be a success now. Make a list of solutions that have been tried unsuccessfully in the past. Check why each of these solutions failed. Many times, a solution fails because of lack of persistence. A solution which did not work in the past may work now due to change in situations, technologies, attitudes or conditions. Let me share some examples on how some of the key organizational functions can leverage the inward thinking approach.

Sales & marketing: A general tendency in marketing is using third-party market research, third-party digital marketing, third-party sales funnelling and third-party communications work. We at XoxoDay also tried to outsource some of these functions in our own limited capacity. This led to high costs, delay in work and high involvement of teams to explain to the externals.

We realized over time that these functions are core and internal where insights are much more important. If one can bring together a good mix of art and science in marketing and sales teams, most of these can be easily handled internally. A lot of data is generated internally through customers, website, apps, calls, chats, form fills, etc, which can give massive insights for actions. Similarly, a large number of sales leads is lost through layers of teams and processes in a company. And we seek sales support from outside without taking a deeper dive into these leakages in the sales funnel. Unless we action these internal data points, it's both waste of time and money to seek out the external. External help can be sought in areas which need very special expertise like mass media communication and production, otherwise most others can be handled internally.

Technology: Sometimes, in smaller companies like ours one must balance the present and the future with limited resources. We have gone through issues where we have spent technology resources on something experimental at the cost of building on the present. This has cost us compromising on the quality of existing product or delaying the go-to-market at times. Inward thinking has helped us bring focus by limiting this distraction. Many times, we tend to solve a very simple problem through complex technology solution. The reason is we haven't done enough analysis with the internal information and jump to complex external stimuli. Many start-ups in last few years have suffered setting up wrong priorities as they got too carried away with the external and overlooked the insights.

Customer delight: Customer support teams in companies keep becoming bigger and bigger with time. There are massive hierarchies build and the real consumer insights are covered below various layers of data crunching. The real qualitative insights are often missed out in these layers of quantitative data. I strongly feel that a customer care team can be lean as a company grows if each conversation from a customer is actioned in such a way that same issue never comes again to a human agent. One of my roles at Xoxoday has been quality, customer satisfaction and delight. While we kept on implementing best practices, the single most important source of data for us has been inputs from customer mails and calls. Reading through the lines into each conversation with customer helped us improvise every day. These conversations have been very rich in information both for our present and from a futuristic perspective.

So, next time, when you are thinking of solving any problem, remember insights are in sight. You'll solve better and faster. Looking inside the box is the place to start before considering what's off the box. It's well said by Christopher Peterson, "If you've never ventured outside the box, you will probably not be creative. But if you never get inside the box, you'll probably be stupid."

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