Outside in. The value of external perspective.

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As businesses living through the digital revolution, we find ourselves bombarded with the mantra that we need to be innovators. To dream ever bigger. To make waves where once there were ripples.

With each Big Shiny Technology movement that arrives — big data, voice assistants, artificial intelligence, , augmented reality, and whatever tomorrow will bring — our guilt at failing to keep ahead is compounded. We’re sat on our own great new concepts and ideas that we never get the chance to bring to market…more guilt, more pressure.

But we’re in the business of being busy in our businesses, so the opportunities to sit back, take stock, and get some clarity around new directions, are few and far between. We have the deep desire to make changes, yet we’re inevitably hamstrung by the realities of deadlines, cashflow, and securing that next client.

We understand. We’ve all been there.

However if we’re open to the fundamental concept that not all great ideas will come directly from within a business, we can see that fusing internal know-how with the experience and the untethered perspective of external players can unleash new thinking, tackle difficult challenges and bring new products to market.

Pulling Ideas From Out Of The Wall

Take the humble cash machine. Prior to the late 1960’s, anyone looking to withdraw their hard-earned cash from their current account had to visit a branch during somewhat limited opening hours.

Frustrated that he’d got to his branch too late one Saturday afternoon, engineer John Shepherd-Barron apparently sought solace in a nice warm bath. Whilst thinking through the problem from his own technical perspective, Shepherd-Barron experienced his very own ‘eureka moment’.

“What if getting my hands on my earnings was as easy as getting a chocolate bar from a vending machine?”

That’s all it took. He set to work on a prototype, and pitched it to Barclays. The rest — of course — is history.

The banks couldn’t see the problem, just as long as customers were queuing up to deposit and withdraw cash, the status quo worked just fine for them. But it took just one outsider’s different perspective to create the ATM, and transform banking forever.

Yesterday Is The Enemy Of Tomorrow

One of the biggest barriers to progress is the innate resistance to change so regularly found in organisations.

You’ll recognise “…but we’ve always done it like this” as the common battle cry of the most steadfast change resistors, those folk that have a habit of perpetuating corporate inertia in companies regardless of size. Cultures breed. Challenging that kind of thinking is hard.

Bringing in expertise from outside of the company — with no emotional attachment to old ways of working and learned behaviours — allows for a cleaner view on the challenges they face, and new opportunities perhaps not visible to those closest to the business.

It’s obvious really, but if we work with others that have their own experiences in running businesses (those that have ‘been there and done that’), new perspectives will lead to change. And having validation from experts outside of the company makes it easier to overcome any naysayers that might otherwise put up a fight.

Experience, of course. Empathy, for sure. And honesty, yes please. Make it brutal.

Being removed from the day-to-day operation of a company, an outsider is in that unique position to ask “Why the hell are you doing it like that?” without putting anyone’s nose out of joint. Indeed, simply asking those difficult questions about processes forces an issue to the forefront, from which both parties can work through solutions.

One small insight could make a simple, but significant change: we recall a discussion about a company trying to manage staff holidays through a series of static spreadsheets, taking up far too much effort and consternation. “It’s a nightmare”, said the exec. “But there’s an app for that?”, the reply. Pleasant dreams soon returned.

Equally, perspective from those removed from a situation, can present even greater shifts in thinking:

What can we do with all of this knowledge sat in our employees heads? Why can’t we get our teams working more collaboratively? If our market is diminishing, how can we pivot to new opportunities? Is our business model robust for the future?

Pertinent questions — now more than even as we adapt to the pandemic — but inherently difficult to tackle without tapping into partners that can bring the outside in.

We Get It

Look, we know change is hard. But it’s even harder if you try to go it alone: you can’t fix the engine whilst also driving the bus.

Once you take the decision to get support from the wider business world, finding the right partners and then having absolute clarity over how the relationship will work, is key.

The right partners: people buy people, simple. Maybe there are four companies offering the same services you’re looking for. That’s great, but which of those can you genuinely envisage working with? And which of those would you be able to look in the eye and have an honest conversation with when difficulties arise?

Collaboration: methodology in the madness. Every company has a methodology of choice to steer its working processes, so when you bring two parties together — each with their own — there’s potential for an almighty clash. As you start the relationship, it’s essential that neither party imposes its framework over the other. Take the chance to create a new methodology the works for everyone, that’s collaborative but has the structure and the depth required to ensure results are delivered.

Communication: shouldn’t need to be said. It’s critical, but so often not fully considered. Define where the lines of communication should be; who owns the project on either side, which other stakeholders should be involved in decisions, how frequent should updates be? Open and regular discussion keeps projects on track, and ensures that both parties have total clarity on what needs to happen, but silence kills relationships. End of.

So stop. Take a breath. Think about the changes you’re longing to make. Then turn to face them. With the right external perspective. You might be surprised what can be achieved.

Co Contributor – Phil Birchenall

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