Outsourcing’s Different Box

I read an excellent post this month from Peter Bregman on the Harvard Business Review blog site, “If You Want to Be Original, Start from a Different Box.” It’s an excellent twist on the old think-outside-the-box refrain. Bregman, CEO of the global management consulting firm Bregman Partners Inc., speaks, writes and consults on leadership. He is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

In his HBR post he riffs on why a manufacturer would make an all-terrain vehicle that has only two-wheel drive. (His thoughts were prompted after he got stuck in the mud on one.) It turns out that early ATVs evolved from motorcycles, which are rear-wheel powered.

That got him thinking: “If you want to be original — to really think out of the box — you might be better off starting from a different box than [the one] you’re in.”

He goes on to write about the value of being innovative, of identifying the goal and then “working backwards,” while questioning conventional corporate wisdom, history and practices.

Approaching problems with the end in mind sound’s sensible, but it’s not easy to implement without different thinking and creativity. Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns, as they say, or even make the watermelons square.

On the latter point, this is a true story related by Lean Thinking Network, on the “Lessons of the Square Watermelon.” which I feature in my book Vested Outsourcing: Five Rules that will Transform Outsourcing.

Japanese grocery stores had a problem with the large round watermelons commonly seen in large U.S. supermarkets. Their stores are much smaller than their U.S. counterparts; they don’t have room to waste. The usual watermelons took up too much space. How to address this problem? In this case Japanese farmers thought outside the box and inside the box: They invented a smaller, square watermelon by growing them inside a square box so that they would take on the shape of the box. This made the grocery stores happy, the square variety were easier and more cost effective to ship, and consumers liked them because they took less space in their refrigerators which, in Japan, are much smaller than those in the U.S.  Win-win-win.

In that case it was “hip to be square,” as the Huey Lewis song goes. But the lessons of this story are large: question normal assumptions; be creative; what appears impossible often isn’t.

Vested Outsourcing is not only outside the box, it’s a different, more creative box.  Bregman’s advice to begin with the end in mind is sound advice for anyone going through an outsourcing exercise.  It’s so important that it is embedded in the Five Rules of Vested Outsourcing, which instruct those in an outsourcing relationship to agree on clearly defined and measurable outcomes (Rule 3), to focus on the what, not the how (Rule 2) and to focus on outcomes, not transactions (Rule 1).

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