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Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking outside the box is an old cliché, but one that is usually associated with serial entrepreneurs who started a number of successful startup companies and luckily later sold them to large corporations for millions of dollars.  Nice work if you can get it, right? It seems to be much harder to think outside the box in large companies when your creative spirit wants to run with an innovative idea, product, or process.  That’s why you must learn to think inside the box and find ways around the stumbling blocks that can stifle new innovation. So what kinds of barriers kill the innovative spirit in companies?

The presentation of any new idea is political. It must be thoughtfully crafted and advanced at just the right time. Good ideas can die on the drawing board due to resistance from the been there, done that voice in the room. This close-minded attitude flies in the face of advancing any innovative process. Do your homework and don’t forget to seek the advice of key stakeholders in advance of any presentation. Not only can this help build alliances that will support your project and strengthen its chances of success, but it may yield new perspectives that you did not consider.  It is also a good way to moderate the negative comments and concerns of others.

Many companies talk about their wheelhouse—a metaphor for their production comfort zone. New technology and innovative processes often do not work perfectly with existing manufacturing equipment. If you think your idea will be a challenge to the traditional way of doing business in your company, expect to meet some resistance. You can challenge this resistance with the knowledge that companies who do not innovate outside their comfort zones will not keep up with competitors who are willing to take risks and try new ideas. If your idea has the potential to be good for your competitor, it is likely you can sell the idea as a trial and find an outside collaborator to make enough product for customer discovery and research. If the product is a hit with your customers, your company will likely invest in expanding their capabilities.

Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, but you never want to be labeled as the mad scientist with all the crazy ideas, especially in a big corporation. As awesome as your ideas may be, you should resist falling in love with them to avoid not being taken seriously and maybe even ignored. Well-timed and thoroughly researched communication is key. Conducting due diligence on your idea, including competitive landscape and intellectual property analyses, along with a proposed path forward with milestones and timelines, will shift the focus from you to evaluation of the innovation.  Your enthusiasm will only add momentum to the project.

Innovation is a resource-driven activity, and when new ideas are presented, constraints in bandwidth and capacity may cause them to end up on the shelf. Marketing focus groups can advance new ideas, especially when they address key customer pain points. If your marketing team can include your new idea in their research plan, then customer feedback will move it forward. A strong customer response can overcome a number of resource constraint issues.

All companies must innovate to survive and their biggest assets are their employees. Management can play a big role in removing barriers to the acceptance of new ideas by a creating a safe, positive atmosphere where innovation is part of the culture. Good ideas can come from anywhere and at all levels within the company. Creating forums where these ideas are regularly presented and discussed gives employees permission to take risks and think inside the box.

Dr. Scarborough is the owner and principle advisor of Materia Prima Ventures, LLC and can be reached at