Looking outside one’s own industry has resulted in many remarkable innovations and disruptions. But all too often managers lack the mandate, authority, or confidence to make it work. They can overcome these obstacles by building a team to execute the search for outside ideas; providing it with strong, empowered leaders; and carefully preparing the sales pitch.
As business scrambles to recover from the pandemic, I’ve seen one famous piece of advice doing the rounds: managers are told to look to other industries for fresh ideas.
The classic example is Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line, an idea he stole from the meat industry. Abbatoirs used a “dissembly line” to shunt carcasses along a steel rail from worker to worker, as each executed a specific task. Ford simply flipped the concept and revolutionized manufacturing.
Looking to other industries like this is a neat idea, but my experience as a strategy consultant to businesses over three decades tells me that it doesn’t always work. In what follows, I’ll explain the challenges to the approach— and how to overcome them.
Challenge 1: Lack of mandate
Blair is a Plant Manager for a multi-national company in the pre-mixed concrete industry. I asked him if he looked to other industries for “creative solutions” in terms of customer service or price, for instance. His answer was short and to the point: “It’s not in my job description.”
His job is to make sure that his batching plant runs efficiently, that supplies are always on tap, and that customers and staff are happy. He’s clearly industry focused and any thinking outside the box which might come from another industry is simply not on the agenda. I know from experience that it’s not on anyone else’s agenda in his company either, all the way to the top.
Challenge 2: Lack of authority
Veronica is Sales Manager for a media company. Her specific job is to sell television time to advertising agencies. She also supervises five sales representatives. When I asked her about looking outside her industry for strategy ideas her answer was clear. “It’s not in my brief to do that and, even if it was, I don’t have the authority to do anything about it.”
Veronica has a lot of exposure to other industries in her role selling advertising, and there are times when she is impressed with the strategy she sees in use. But she has no power to try them out in her own business, so her insights go unused.
Challenge 3: Lack of confidence
This concerns a fear that making any translation from one industry to another will be difficult — or worse, impossible. Health care workers are particularly prone to this, believing that their challenges are unique and that they couldn’t possibly transfer initiatives from another industry to theirs.
One of my clients, a retirement village, was having trouble with its safety record. This was impacting its insurance claims and insurance premiums directly, but it was also affecting its ability to attract and retain staff. It was following industry norms and practices so little could be learned from other industry participants. I nominated Dupont, an industrial manufacturer, from outside the retirement village’s industry as it was known as a fanatic on safety. But I was met with skepticism from staff. How is a manufacturer relevant to a retirement village?
Overcoming the Challenges
With so much to gain from looking outside your industry it’s a shame to let an opportunity slip by because of obstacles like these. Here’s how you can get past them:
Assemble an empowered team
Lack of mandate and lack of authority are overcome by establishing an empowered team. Let’s suppose that you decide to visit three organizations outside your industry for answers. Your “Breakthrough Team” should be in the range of three to ten people made up of individuals who can make a difference when results are bought back. If the CEO is not part of the team, make sure that a direct line exists to them. You want strategic change, not strategic stalling. Also, make sure your team zeros in on impact. For true strategy initiatives, focus on the strategic factor where you’ve hit a brick wall and which would clearly make a competitive difference if significantly improved, e.g., product quality or customer service. Remember that visiting a business in a different industry is not a fishing trip. That organization doesn’t have time to waste on an “industrial visit.” Your purpose must be clearly stated and explained. Otherwise, you’ll receive a clear “no” from the targeted company or you’ll come away with nothing of use.
Provide strong leadership
Tackle the lack of confidence issue via strong leadership. Senior doctors, Martin Elliott and Alan Goldman, at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children saw a link between their operating theaters and Ferrari’s pit crews in the racing-car industry. The specific comparison was between how pit crews changed tires and refuelled a car quickly and without error, and the handoffs for medical teams during team changeovers in complex operating cases. The leadership of Elliott, Goldman, and others was key to the project’s credibility and to the result. The ten-member team in the retirement village case included the CEO and the Director of Nursing. Leadership was there at the outset through the CEO’s involvement and was able to cut through the staff’s initial skepticism.
Prepare your sales pitch
If you intend to go down this path, think about why an organization in another industry would want to entertain a visit from a group of unknown managers like yours.
The reasons businesses say “yes,” in my experience, range from being a good corporate citizen to improving the presentation skills of staff. Others include being beneficial for staff morale in knowing that they’ve been chosen for examination by another organization. In addition, your visit will require the targeted company managers to think about what they do and how they do it — engaging them in a useful self-examination. Don’t forget that at the end of your project you’ll have something of significant value — a report. You could undertake to share a summary of that with the management of any targeted business — with names suitably disguised to protect confidentiality, of course.
Looking outside your industry for strategy improvements and breakthroughs is a good approach. The core reason why it doesn’t work more often is inertia. Doing what you’ve always done and in accordance with industry standards and expectations is far easier and more comfortable than looking into other industries. This very fact affords you a potential competitive advantage — if you dare.