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Room for New Views

“Room for New Views”

Reframe to discover more than one right answer.

Can’t see the forest for the trees?

Entrepreneurs are highly creative. However, as their businesses grow, they’re bombarded by daily issues and problems that can stifle the very creativity that led to the creation of their companies in the first place.

Insight from outsiders

Consulting people outside your organization can help you regroup. Conferring with another person allows you to tap into a fresh reservoir of experiences and insights. What’s more, outsiders don’t have your biases, so they may see answers that you don’t — even when the solution is right under your nose.

Peer networks. Many entrepreneurs praise CEO roundtables for boosting their problem-solving savvy.

Judy Lawton, founder of TLC Staffing, an $8 million firm in San Diego, recalls the time she was having trouble with an employee who had been with the company since its launch in 1985. Lawton, who belongs to Women Presidents’ Organization, consulted her forum group. "They recommended that I fire the employee — something I didn’t want to do," says Lawton. "Yet they helped take the emotion out of the situation and walked me through a process where I eventually got rid of her, but did so in a way that was a win-win situation for both of us."

Friends and family. Some entrepreneurs bounce problems off trusted business friends — individuals who know their industry and will give honest feedback with no strings attached.

Yet insights can also come from people with no business experience. "My wife is one of my best advisers," says Steve Schmidt, founder of Abraham Technical Services Inc., an $18 million technology company in Maple Grove, Minn. "She jolts me into thinking from another angle. For example, if I’m brooding about someone leaving our company, she’ll point out that they’ve only been there a couple of years — and that the company will go on without them."

Take a break

Persistence is a fine virtue, but one of the worst ways to solve a problem is to sit and stare at it, say creativity experts. To gain a new perspective, take a break. Go for a walk. You’ll see a different picture after you’ve stepped away from the canvas.

Tip: Cross-pollination can be a preventive measure to stave off stagnant thinking. Investigate other industries you’ve always been curious about. Take a field trip. Visit another company and try to bring new ideas back home.

To stay out of a mental rut, Schmidt likes to introduce as much variety as possible into his routine: He drives different routes, listens to different radio stations, reads a variety of books — and even stops at historic markers on the road. "It helps keep a steady stream of new ideas flowing for me," he explains.

Schmidt also believes that there’s often a place or time when ideas percolate more easily — perhaps it’s when you’re taking a shower or walking your dog. "Determine where you do your best creative thinking, and then put yourself in that situation more often," he advises. "We are creatures of habit, so we need to build creative habits into our lives."

Ask stupid questions

As CEO of Yanosan Group, a $15 million product-development group in Mill Creek, Wash., Ian Bouchard spends much of his day reassessing products and perceptions.

To do that Bouchard relies on a simple tool: stupid questions. For example, he might ask, "Why would anybody buy this product in the first place?" or "What do people want that they aren’t getting?"

Recently Bouchard helped launch a new line of umbrellas that light up at night. "The inventor was trying to sell the safety aspect of the umbrella, but failed to recognize that safety wasn’t a compelling proposition," says Bouchard, pointing out that people buy umbrellas first and foremost to stay dry. They also don’t want to look stupid, so aesthetics are important. As a result, Bouchard devised a series of hip designs that would appeal to urban customers, the primary purchasers of umbrellas — along with sleek packaging that would appeal to retailers. The revisions were a smash. Carrying an umbrella on his way to a prospective account, Bouchard was stopped in the street by people who asked where they could buy the umbrella.

"Many business owners let their expertise trip them up," concludes Bouchard. "They understand their product at a level that may not be appreciated by their customer, while dismissing the customer’s needs as too simplistic." Asking stupid questions can help you walk in the customer’s shoes.

MBA illumination

Steve Antisdel gleaned most of his business education from 30 years in the retail trenches. Yet two years ago, the CEO of FurnitureFind.com enrolled in an MBA distance-learning program at a university in England.

"It’s really influenced how I look at things," says Antisdel, noting that the MBA program has exposed him to American and European companies in every industry from chemicals to publishing.

Gaining insights into other industries and cultures has been key for Antisdel because FurnitureFind isn’t a traditional furniture business. The Buchanan, Mich.-based company sells furniture on the Web, one of the few e-retailers to do so successfully. Launched in 1996, FurnitureFind.com has more than $10 million in annual revenues and 60 employees.

Leading the company requires Antisdel to think strategically — and avoid frameworks that could stymie growth. As a result of his MBA studies, Antisdel is implementing a matrix structure at FurnitureFind.

"Within a traditional retail company, it’s common to have functional silos. In a matrix organization, there is more cross-departmental communication and work," he explains. "In the past one department might act on something without realizing how a change in their area could negatively affect another area. Now when we approach a problem or opportunity, we look at how it impacts every department and get people together to talk about it."

Recreational learning

Scot Johnson realized that the only books on his coffee table were business books. That prompted the CEO of I3Solutions Inc., a $3 million e-business consulting firm in Sterling, Va., to sign up for history and culinary classes at the Smithsonian Institute.

In one session about Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War" (one of the earliest military treatises), Johnson learned some new tricks about battling competition. "One philosophy is to attack not just your opponents, but also the alliances and pipelines that make them strong," he explains. "Hearing that made me look at my competitors differently. Now I’m trying to form partnerships with some of their partners and see what happens."

Johnson has also discovered business applications in culinary courses: "In one class we took a recipe, and by altering the sequence in which the ingredients were used, the dish tasted different. It made me think about what would happen if we rolled out an HR policy at a different time or in a different way — how would it impact our culture?

"Taking classes at the Smithsonian has been one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever done," adds Johnson. "Even though these classes aren’t directly about work, work ideas keep bubbling up. It’s helped me to become well rounded in problem solving and exercise another side of my brain."

Writer: TJ Becker.