What’s stopping managers from looking to other industries for inspiration?

Looking outside of one’s own industry has resulted in many remarkable innovations and disruptions. But too often, managers don’t have the mandate, authority or trust to make it work. They can overcome these obstacles by putting together a team to run the search for outside ideas; provide it with strong and autonomous leaders; and carefully prepare the sales pitch.

As companies scramble to recover from the pandemic, I’ve seen a famous piece of advice circulating: Managers are told to look to other industries for new ideas.

The classic example is Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line, an idea he stole from the meat industry. Slaughterhouses used a “demount chain” to move carcasses along a steel rail from worker to worker, each performing a specific task. Ford simply flipped the concept and revolutionized manufacturing.

Looking to other industries like this is a good idea, but my experience as a strategy consultant to businesses over three decades tells me it doesn’t always work. In what follows, I will explain the challenges of the approach and how to overcome them.

Challenge 1: Lack of mandate

Blair is a plant manager for a multinational 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 example. His response was short and direct: “It’s not in my job description.”

His job is to make sure his concrete plant is running efficiently, supplies are always available, and customers and staff are happy. It’s clearly industry-focused and any out-of-the-box thinking that might come from another industry is just not on the agenda. I know from experience that it’s also not on anyone else’s agenda in their company, up to the top.

Challenge 2: Lack of Authority

Veronica is a sales manager for a media company. His specific job is to sell television time to advertising agencies. She also supervises five sales representatives. When I asked him to look for strategy ideas outside of his industry, his response was clear. “It’s not in my memory to do so and, even if it were, I don’t have the power to do anything about it.”

Veronica has a lot of exposure to other industries in her ad sales role, and there are times when she’s impressed with the strategy she sees in use. But she doesn’t have the power to try them in her own business, so her ideas aren’t used.

Challenge 3: Lack of trust

It’s about the fear that any translation from one industry to another is difficult – or worse, impossible. Healthcare workers are particularly at risk, believing that their challenges are unique and that they could not transfer another industry’s initiatives to their own.

One of my clients, a retirement village, had problems with his security file. This had a direct impact on its insurance claims and insurance premiums, but it also affected its ability to attract and retain staff. It followed industry standards and practices so little could be learned from other industry participants. I named Dupont, an industrial manufacturer, outside the retirement village industry as he was known as a security fanatic. But I encountered skepticism from the staff. How relevant is a manufacturer for a retirement village?

Overcome Challenges

With so much to gain from looking outside of your industry, it’s a shame to pass up an opportunity because of obstacles like these. Here’s how you can get around them:

Build an empowered team

Lack of mandate and lack of authority are overcome by establishing an empowered team. Suppose 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 the results are redeemed. If the CEO is not part of the team, make sure there is a direct line to him. You want strategic change, not strategic blockage. Also, make sure your team is focused on impact. For true strategic initiatives, focus on the strategic factor where you hit a brick wall that would clearly make a competitive difference if significantly improved, for example, product quality or customer service. Remember that visiting a company in a different industry is not a fishing trip. This organization has no time to waste on an “industrial visit”. Your goal should be clearly stated and explained. Otherwise, you will receive a clear “no” from the targeted company or you will walk away with nothing useful.

Provide strong leadership

Address the issue of lack of trust through strong leadership. Senior doctors Martin Elliott and Alan Goldman of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London have seen a link between their operating rooms and Ferrari’s pit crews in the racing car industry. The specific comparison was between how pit crews changed tires and refueled a car quickly and without error, and transfers for medical teams during shift changes in complex operating cases. The leadership of Elliott, Goldman and others was key to the credibility of the project and the result. The ten-member team in the case of the retirement village included the CEO and the director of nursing. The leadership was there from the start thanks to the involvement of the CEO and was able to dispel the initial skepticism of the staff.

Prepare your sales pitch

If you’re going to go this route, think about why an organization from another industry would want a visit from a group of unknown managers like yours.

In my experience, the reasons companies say “yes” range from being a good corporate citizen to improving staff presentation skills. Others include benefiting staff morale by knowing that they have been singled out for review by another organization. Plus, your visit will force the targeted business leaders to think about what they do and how they do it – engaging them in a helpful self-examination. Don’t forget that at the end of your project, you will have something important: a report. You could commit to sharing a summary of this with the management of any targeted company – with suitably disguised names to protect confidentiality, of course.

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Looking outside your industry for strategic improvements and breakthroughs is a good approach. The main reason it doesn’t work more often is inertia. Doing what you have always done and in line with industry standards and expectations is much easier and more comfortable than looking to other industries. This very fact gives you a potential competitive advantage – if you dare.

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