How Great Leaders Think Outside The Box When Innovating

Think Outside the Box
Think Outside the Box

To think outside the box is much more than listening to customer needs and searching for solutions, but it also creating new customer needs in a way that they find out that they hadn’t realized that this solution would ever exist before.

In the mid-nineteenth century, what we think of today as customer service was scarce at best. The conventional wisdom of the age was “let the buyer beware.”

The retailer’s name was Marshall Field and his stores still hold a legendary place in the hearts of Chicagoans, even though they have been lost to acquisition. The story goes that Field was roaming the floor one day when he overheard an employee arguing with a customer.

It seems the customer, a rather portly woman, was insistent on trying on only size 8 dresses while the sales person was insisting she needed a size 12. Field reportedly called the employee over and pronounced: “give the lady what she wants”.

When Field’s “give the customers what they want” approach to retailing began to gain favor, he had in effect created a new “box” in which retail strategies were measured. Pleasing the customer became a paramount concern of businesses everywhere.

Marketing experts expanded the box a bit by noting the difference between what customers need and what they want. The strategy morphed into an appeal to customer emotions more associated with desire (wants) than practicalities (needs.)

This led to the contemporary craze over Branding as a critical marketing strategy. While there may be multiple products available to meet a customer’s needs, Branding is intended to make a customer want a particular product above all others.

Thinking Outside The Box – Creating Customer Needs

As sound as this “box” based on customer needs and wants was; there was something missing. Needs and wants were defined in the present, assuming minimal familiarity on the part of the customer with product capabilities. What about breakthrough products that created needs and wants customers had not even dreamed of?

When it comes to finding a business development strategy, some business leaders center their vision and efforts around what they know.

They think in terms of improving existing technologies. Great leaders envision things as they could be, not as they are. Few would argue with the view that Steve Jobs built Apple Inc. into the world’s largest corporation by thinking outside the box.

Thinking Outside The Box – The Mobile Revolution

Jobs knew computers and together with co-founder Steve Wozniak introduced the first commercially successful personal computers to the world. Later he introduced the Macintosh, the first PC with a graphical user interface.

While there are those who would argue that Jobs’ leadership qualities were less than the best, there is no denying he exhibited one of the traits characteristic of many of history’s greatest leaders – the ability to keep going in the face of failure. Jobs was fired from Apple but stayed in the game.

Returning to Apple in the late 1990’a he began a series of product developments that built on enhancing existing products to create revolutionary needs.

The iPod innovation is compared to the iconic Sony Walkman disruption, with a new way to access music – the iTunes store.

Consumers were spared the task of descending on a local music store to get the latest hits. Although this innovation redefined the music industry, we think it pales in comparison to Jobs’ greatest triumph – the iPhone.

Some of you may be reading this article on a mobile device – smartphone or tablet. It is hard to imagine these devices were nowhere to be found a decade ago. Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 with Jobs touting the coming “mobile” revolution.

While existing smartphones of the day met basic communication needs, largely of business users, the iPhone opened a whole new world via the App (application) store. In the pre-iPhone era, it is likely consumers did not have a driving need to be able to find a local restaurant on the go because that capability was simply not there.

They were chained to their desktop and bulky laptop devices to find the restaurant and get directions to it. The iPhone changed all that. There were some critics who claimed the iPhone would never amount to more than an expensive adult toy, but the iPhone proved them wrong, crushing the iconic Blackberry line of phones loved by the business world.

Then came the iPad, another device built to further Jobs’ vision of a world linking consumers and the information age together wherever they found themselves.

There is much to be learned from how Steve Jobs thought “outside the box.” He could have continued to focus on what he knew – building bigger and better computers – but he didn’t. He saw needs few others envisioned and enhanced existing product types to meet those needs. He also expanded the concept of the “user experience” through high quality products that worked, making the Apple Brand arguably the most wanted Brand on the planet.

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