The call that came in was an unusual one. One of a series of calls being made to a number of public relations agencies, the caller was a senior public relations professional at Ford Motor Company.
In April 2004, still six months away at the time, Ford was going to introduce the nation’s first Hybrid SUV at the Automobile Show in New York, a hybrid that uses both gasoline and electric power to achieve between 35 and 40 miles per gallon.
Positioned as a “no compromise” automobile, the Ford Escape Hybrid offers owners a large vehicle that meets all their needs but still gets great mileage and dramatically reduces emissions. The car, though not yet available, had already been announced on Ford’s Web site, been introduced at the International Auto Show and fit perfectly with Ford’s pledge to develop more environmentally sensitive cars.
The voice at the end of the phone had a simple request: “We know how to launch a car and handle all the things related to the New York Auto Show. What we are looking for is one big, New York – specific idea. If we decide to go with the idea,” said the spokesperson, “you’ll get the project.”
A request for “one big idea,” something “out of the box,” something “no one else would come up with” is both every PR professional’s best dream and their worst nightmare.
Thinking “out of the box”, after all, ought to be tied to a creative inspiration, not a competitive business request that hints that ideas that are strong, solid and usable will fall short of the mark, and only that really “different” concept, the one no one else came up with, is going to pass the test.
The process of finding that one big idea was, however, more exciting as a challenge than scary as a threat, and so the thinking process began.
Many of the ideas generated by the brainstorming team might well work: “invite politicians to commend Ford for taking this important step towards more efficient vehicles”; “raffle one off with proceeds going to an environmental group”; “place Bill Ford himself on the morning talk programs to demonstrate the car.” And so on.
The “Greens” among us argued for what fit Ford’s environmental positioning— a guerilla approach to find the 10 worst airpolluting intersections in New York City and compare emissions of the Escape Hybrid at a stopped red light at these intersections versus the much higher emissions of all the other vehicles that happen to be there.
The “creatives” jumped in here and said we could even name the program “American Idle.”
The media experts went the entertainment route—let’s get celebrities to drive the car and compete with one another in a fleet of vehicles to see who gets the best mileage.
The “New Yorkers to their core” thinkers had another approach: let’s replicate the New York City Marathon—26.2 miles crossing all five boroughs—on one gallon of gas.
The inspiration for the out-of-the-box idea, the one that won with the executives at Ford, managed to be creative, strategic and New York specific, and one no one else thought of. It went like this: “Thousands of journalists work not just in New York City, but in the borough of Manhattan, and every one of them—no matter what mode of transportation they use to get to work—knows traffic in Manhattan is slow, unpredictable and often not much faster than walking. Since the Ford Escape Hybrid gets its best mileage in tough traffic conditions—let’s demonstrate it in dramatic style. Let’s cover as many streets, avenues, highways, roads and drives in the borough on one tank of gas until we run out. We’ll call it “Manhattan on a Tank of Gas” and people can guess how far and how long we’ll go.”
The inspiration was then followed by some hard research: just how many miles of paved road are there in Manhattan— less than 2.5 miles wide and less than 13 miles long— anyway?
The answer that came back pushed the idea even further: with only 504 miles of road, and the Escape’s 15-gallon tank of gas averaging at least 35 miles per, we could ride every street in Manhattan and still have more than a gallon to spare.
The idea went quickly to Ford’s PR department, which immediately brought it to the brand. And though it melded shape over time—celebrities were invited to participate in the ride as were journalists—Bill Ford announced the results at the floor of the New York Auto Show.
It was decided to cover the equivalent of every mile of road in Manhattan rather than try and map out a way to do it from top to bottom; the idea made the rare leap from out-of-the-box thought to workable business solution.
When the ride was held in April, the car actually went 576 miles, riding non-stop across Manhattan for 37 hours
Creative thinking in the business world
In a non-restricted world of creative thinking, inspiration—that spark that appears usually way too infrequently to light the internal fires in all of us—stands on its own.
If you are being creative for creativity’s sake, there is no right or wrong. There is no need for compromise. There is no strategy to get in the way. But in the world of business, there is no creativity for creativity’s sake. There are creative solutions for business problems, which means creative sparks have to be tempered, carefully honed and, way too often, diminished in order to achieve a result of sales, influence or even just to pass the muster of the sometimes less creative (or more risk-advertise, to use their jargon), who will have to fund the creative effort.
Marrying creativity with business solutions, for clients and agencies alike, is the name of the game and as hard as it may be at times, there are guidelines that can help the business world succeed by uncovering, utilizing and gaining profit from creative solutions to problems. But let’s start with public relations or communications.
Here is our unchallengeable going-in principle: public relations is an art, not a science. That means, among other things, that there is no one right answer. In science, two plus two must always be four, and two plus two can take you to no other solution.
In communications, however, there are literally limitless ways to express ideas; the task at hand is to find the one that will work the best which is not to say that other, different answers could not be as right, or even more impactful.
Thinking out of the box in business, then, is sometimes not just about finding the answer to the question being asked, but also changing the question if there are better answers that will come by asking different questions. In business, in fact, thinking out of the box is often about simply bringing a new way to do something to a culture or environment that has already concluded it has found the right way.
Thinking ‘out of the box’ in business, therefore, is often about finding the right question even before the search for answers begins. The early days of MCI (well before Worldcom ever muddied the picture) give a good example of how out-of-the-box thinking not only worked to build a company, but in fact, changed a culture.
If MCI had a way of providing lower cost telephone service to Americans, it first had to challenge a government-permitted monopoly that prevented true competition. Once that was done (which, as you might imagine, was an expensive long-term process), the easy way to build the market was to offer a cheaper service and let people know about it. It is here where MCI broke out of the box of traditional thinking and hit upon a brilliant idea: let’s not just interest people in saving money for themselves, let’s use them as sales people to convince the people they call to do the same. Enter “Friends and Family,” a revolutionary program which offered discounts on calls from one MCI customer to another and rewards for getting those people you call now who were not using MCI to sign on.
The idea of using your customers to tell others about your benefits is undoubtedly one of the oldest sales techniques in the world. But the concept of proactively turning customers into salespeople, and getting both them and the people they were recommending the service to to be your advocates, was a true breakthrough in the telecommunications industry.
Business creative thinking isn’t as much about new ideas as it is about finding what seemingly inapplicable ideas already in the marketplace may work for you. In a market where one company dominates the industry, the task of building the market usually falls on its shoulders.
ATandT told Americans for years to “reach out and touch” someone via a telephone call. One of the smart things that MCI did just a few short years after Friends and Family was announced was to look for ways to get its consumers to make more phone calls to numbers they would not normally be calling.
Thus came programs such as a chance to listen to the sounds of summer in the coldest days of winter by calling MCI numbers that put people in touch with the sounds of waves crashing across the beach, birds happily chirping and the bells of an ice cream truck.
The box Gillette needed to think outside of was its own business operating style. At the time Gillette was preparing to launch the Gillette Sensor Razor in the late 1980s, it was a company facing a difficult situation. Disposable razors, which it first invented decades earlier, were quickly becoming a commodity. There was less and less difference between competitive products and price was becoming the determining factor in sales. After all, the product was disposable anyway, so how advanced could it be?
The Sensor, however, was created to change that entire market scenario. The result of 10 years and $200 million in research and development at a time when the threat of a hostile takeover was actively in discussion, Gillette recognized that nothing short of complete success for the Sensor would be acceptable.
The company analyzed problems it had suffered in earlier launches and recognized that one of the things that had blunted past introductions was that once the retail trade was introduced to the product several months before consumer availability, Gillette no longer controlled how the product was being perceived in the marketplace.
The media heard about it secondhand, from the trade first, not Gillette. Gillette’s intensive research had also shown that men across North America and Europe have very similar views about shaving and take a considerable amount of pride in this part of their grooming regimen.
That being established, Gillette and its marketing partners quickly reached a number of out-of-the-box solutions that differed from the way the company had operated in the past. These conclusions included: Launch the product the exact same day across 19 countries in Europe and North America so message consistency about the Sensor could be assured.
This Pan Atlantic launch was a new approach for the company. Announce the product to the media before it was available in stores, and BEFORE it was introduced to the trade, so that Gillette itself controlled the messages going out to the consumers. This decision to tell people about a product three months before they would be able to buy it was to the hardest decision for company executives to accept, with many company executives convinced they would get only one chance to talk to the media and if they did it upfront, three months later, when the product was available, nobody would care.
Instead, a Twin Peaks launch strategy was put in place designed to gain media attention first with the announcement and then again at time of availability. Talk about something the company never addressed publicly before—the amount of money it spent ($200 million) and the time it took (10 years) to develop the product.
This box-breaker came after intense discussion and research about what it would take to persuade people that significant technological advances in a disposable razor would make a difference they could actually feel, and would be obvious the minute they used the razor.
The unveiling of Gillette’s commitment, however, made both the media and the financial community stand up and take notice, and made the need for success that much more critical. Reporters and analysts decided they would have to try this razor for themselves to see if any of these advances made a difference.
Fortunately, the Sensor was a product that delivered on all of its promise. Knowing that there was a three-month period between the announcement and availability, Gillette set to get the Sensor in the hands of “influencers” and “thoughtleaders” who could try it in advance of public availability.
The result of this campaign directed at several hundred men brought a number of important testimonials, not the least of which was a letter on Air Force One stationery from the first President Bush to the CEO of Gillette congratulating him on the great product he was about to introduce. (Although the President’s letter was rightfully never used for publicity purposes, its impact within the company itself as it went on display at corporate headquarters was palpable).
The Sensor launch is considered one of the most successful in 20th-century marketing and helped assure a strong future position for the company management team and good days for its shareholders. What is even better to note though, was that the company learned it needed to continue to break the box on traditional thinking.
Instead of launching the Gillette Sensor for Women using the same successful methodology as for its men’s version, Gillette found that it would need an entirely different approach. Although men view shaving similarly across countries and cultures, women do not. For many women, shaving is viewed as a task they dislike and not as a meaningful part of the grooming regimen. And the extent to which women’s shaving habits vary widely country by country, culture by culture is enormous.
For the Sensor for Women launch, Gillette approached each country differently, basing its messages on what fit the needs and views of women there. This decision, not to replicate what had worked so well for them with the men’s razor, was as out of the box in corporate thinking as was the approach first used for the men’s Sensor.
Learning how to think more creatively
Lots (and lots and lots) has been written about how to think creatively, how to see
things from different perspectives, how to bring out your inner inspiration, push the
envelope, think out of the box, etc. And doing it within a business environment, where you
not only have to have your creativity focused and channeled to meet business goals, but you have to be able to persuade others to try new things when trying new things puts people's necks on the line, makes it that much harder to achieve.
Using creativity in business is often about finding the safe ground between those who
say, "I want a big, fresh, new idea unlike anything we've ever tried before. I want to push
the envelope!" and those who say "That's not the way we do things here. You have to understand our culture and understand how things happen. We don't like to take chances."
Before we start talking about left brain and right brain (fast, which is the creative
half?), let's start with a little experiment.
In his excellent book 99% Inspiration Tips, Tales and Techniques for Liberating Your
Business Creativity, Bryan W. Mattimore provides the following exercise: Which of the following numbers is most different from the others?
Make it a little harder for yourself. Think not only about what the right answer is, but think of all the possible answers that you could come up with. Do the exercise before you read on. Solution(s): Ok, what did you come up with. Was it “one” because it is the only single-digit number? Or “thirteen” because it does not have a one in it? Or “thirty-one,” because it is hyphenated?
The answer Mattimore hopes you found is “2” because it is the only even number of the three listed in the left-hand column or of the six listed either numerically or spelled-out.
Ok, be honest, did you get it? What an exercise like this shows is that out-of-the-box thinking isn’t just coming up with a right answer, it is about seeing possibilities that others may not see. And the possibility, the “naïve, childlike” possibility as Mattimore calls it, is to step back from the pre-programmed view of the world that the column on the left is only a sequential listing and the answer must be on the right among the spelledout numbers.
The critical point in thinking out of the box in a business context is finding inspiration in
the unlikeliest of places -- seeing the connection between ideas that others might not see.
In his book, Mattimore notes that Henry Ford's idea for the mass production of cars
came from a visit to a slaughterhouse. Samuel Morse attributed his development of the
telegraph relay system to watching fresh horses being substituted for tired horses at relay
stations. Eli Whitney realized the principles behind the cotton gin when he saw a cat reach
through a fence trying to grab a chicken.
But waiting for inspiration to hit is far from a practical business solution to the problems
companies face on a day-to-day basis. Their task is to find the best solution right away
and implement it to drive change, or sales, or whatever. Few companies have anyone with the title "strategist;" instead the responsibility is spread widely, often among the entire company.
But the business need for creativity on demand can be assisted through a variety of
techniques. The one relied on most commonly in business, whether formally or informally, is what is called "brainstorming", the bringing together of a number of people to find...
I haven't finished the previous sentence for a good reason, because I'd like you to think about the answer first. What is it you try to find during brainstorming?
If you answer the question the way most people would -- "to find the best answer"
you've already made a critical mistake in business thinking. Brainstorming should be used for a different purpose, "to find the world of possibilities."
By searching only for the right answers during a brainstorming, you immediately
drive participants to self-censor and cynics to cite why things won't work or can't be done, or don’t fit our style and what you have in the end are the safest possible ideas.
Years ago, I made a startling (to me anyway) discovery when observing brainstormings and that is that the same types of ideas kept coming up, often offered from more than one person.
Or said a different way, if you broke a brainstorming into two separate groups and asked them to brainstorm the same issue or problem, the solutions they came back with would be far more similar than different.
In fact, my guess is that 75% of the ideas that come up in one group will come up in the other. That’s not to say those are bad or wrong ideas. It just means that they are the most obvious ones and the ones that your competitors doing the same exercise would come up with as well.
How then do you make a brainstorm give you the world of possibilities rather than the predetermined, “here’s where our company feels safe, no risk involved, these ought to work” ideas?
Here are few simple rules guaranteed to make a group-think session as productive as possible: There are no bad ideas. That means all ideas are welcomed and recorded and no one points out their flaws. Surely later you’ll have the opportunity to toss those that cannot provide the type of answer you need, but you won’t know what is worth saving and what’s not until you hear it. Keep people unthreatened and anxious to explore where their insights take them. Restate the problem. Try it once viewing your problem straight on, but then try it from a different angle, perhaps from the customer’s point of view or the distribution chain’s, or even the competitor’s point of view.
Again, different questions bring different answers, so make sure you ask your team the right things. Look outside your field. Remember Bryan Mattimore’s examples of where the ideas for the cotton gin and the assembly line came from. If you are thinking about ideas for how to launch a new widget, think about how companies in other industries have introduced their widgets.
Record every idea. There is nothing worse than a scribe who misses or prejudges many points not worth recording. The best thoughts often come from taking a good but unworkable idea and finding out how to make it work. If that means changing some of the rules by which you do business, your creative solutions may be trying to tell you something.
Don’t start the evaluation process for 24 hours. Sleep on it. Literally. Some ideas that made the room come alive the day before may have dulled quickly, while others that were not presented dynamically may begin to take force in your mind. Let your brain ponder the possibilities a little bit to see what pops to the top before deciding your next steps.
Trust your gut; but not completely. Since the goal is not “what is the most creative idea,” but “what’s the most creative idea we can use”, after the brainstorm when the screening process does begin, test the ideas you like to make sure they are workable. The world is full of good ideas that just cannot work— because they have a flaw, because the culture in which they are offered cannot accept them, because the transition from idea to reality is too expensive, too difficult and takes way too long. Mattimore called his book 99% Inspiration for a reason, and eventually the business practicalities, or the 1%, have to be applied.
The challenge of finding the “out-of-thebox, one big idea” solution to a business problem has been with us for a long time and is not likely to fade away anytime soon. Finding that idea may be the business equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack, but if you build your haystack the right way, and put the right eyes against it, your odds of finding the right idea can be increased significantly.
Just consider the world of possibilities…