Friday, September 12, 2008

Common Patterns, UnCommon Sense

“Don’t re-invent the wheel”!

More often than not you will hear this tired, familiar phrase expressed by those who naively believe their business model or brand can stand out in a crowd just because they happen to believe so. It’s tempting to say “why don’t we just study best practices and follow what other companies in our category are doing? Hey, if it’s proven and it works …”

This safe, logical risk-free approach will have many vertical, linear thinkers nodding in agreement. Unfortunately, don't hold your breath waiting for your company to become remarkable in anything it creates, says or does. You can't expect to innovate new products, services, techniques or develop a kick-ass brand promise and message without challenging fundamental assumptions about the business you are currently in. Otherwise, be prepared to resign yourself to a fate of incremental improvements at best. And don’t be surprised if and when you get blindsided by someone who decided to view things from a different, slightly haphazard, horizontal angle.

A little history lesson helps explain the concept.

More than a century ago, the automotive industry was created when legions of horseless carriage builders sprung up in scattered backyards and barns throughout North America and Europe. For the better part of 30 years, people like Karl Benz assembled their products, one at a time (often by hand) bringing together wheels & axles, engines, windshields and everything in between. These cars were then taken to market and sold primarily to wealthy customers as high end luxuries. Cars at that time were generally expensive and difficult to maintain. One of the early casualties of this business model was Detroit Automobile Co. going bankrupt in 1902 after selling fewer than half a dozen cars in two years, and firing it chief engineer.

Down, but not out, the unemployed engineer knew there had to be a better way. A year later, he formed his own company, went looking for answers – outside his own industry – and could not believe his eyes when visiting a slaughterhouse at the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and saw the "disassembly line". Cattle being cut apart as the carcasses moved along a conveyor. Butchers on either side of the line removing the same piece of the cow over and over.

Henry could not help but notice a common pattern and experienced a great breakthrough just by observing an industry or discipline outside his own. The next step was to use UnCommon Sense and simply reverse the process in his own category. By 1908, the Ford Motor Company plant was turning out thousands of Model T’s each month, leaving hundreds of Henry’s competitors choking in the dust of innovation.

Daring to think in this lateral, horizontal fashion allowed Henry Ford to see what so many others failed to. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, the world outside of your industry, market or profession is full of existing ideas that people have never fully capitalized upon, which may be adapted to your specific need or challenge. Vertical solutions or “best practices” are based on existing ideas or knowledge -- solutions others have already had some success - like drilling deeper into an existing oil well. Thinking from a broader perspective allows you to ask different questions, ones that stitch seemingly unrelated concepts and answers together. Lateral, horizontal thinking is like yeast. You don't need a great deal of it but you can't make bread or beer without it.

Where could you apply horizontal thinking and discover Common Patterns that make UnCommon Sense? Could you open a kaleidoscope of doors from industries or disciplines other than your own and picture windows that will magically open in the movie theatre of your imagination?

Henry Ford is but one in a long line of visionary, intuitive, innovators who took time to notice what was going on around them. Fred Smith got the idea for FedEx by noticing how banks processed and moved paperwork throughout their network. General Mills and Southwest Airlines spent countless hours watching and studying the pit crews of the Indy 500 to help improve turnaround times at manufacturing plants and airports. And the original McDonald brothers, Dick and Maurice borrowed Henry’s production line concept to make burgers, shakes and fries in a more efficient manner before Ray Kroc came along to franchise the idea and revolutionize the entire food service industry.

Right now, cosmic, universal knowledge is swirling around us like never before. Right now, the never trendy, but always fashionable Red Rocker has discovered some Common Patterns in his latest video that you may find intriguing.

Right now, it's Sammy Hagar's turn.

Hagar was recently quoted as sayng "When I wrote the lyrics to 'Right Now' I intended them to inspire people to not sit around and wait for something they believed in but to go out and get it -- to make a change however they needed to. In fact, I still feel so strongly about this that I wrote a new song 'Cosmic Universal Fashion' with a young Iraqi musician in an attempt to motivate a new generation to the same affect".

To discover UnCommon Sense for your business or career, be ready to sit down, think and ask:

What are the elements of the challenge I’m trying to solve?
• Who else (from a category other than my own) has dealt with a similar type problem?
• How did they solve it?
• Can it be adapted to my situation?

Answers to your biggest business or career issues could lay in many fields; architecture, agriculture, rock videos, military strategy, quantum physics, professional sports, the animal kingdom and who knows where else? Imagine discovering and pinpointing techniques and ideas, tested and proven in seemingly unrelated, but lateral, parallel worlds.

Are there Common Patterns you can picture right now that would make UnCommon Sense for your business - and by extension - your brand?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have replied – faster horses”

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