CXO

Feeling uninspired? 4 tips for gaining fresh perspective on leadership and innovation

The best leaders and thinkers take inspiration from outside their company, industry, and experience. Here's how to apply some of these techniques yourself.

For decades, workers from line level to management aspired to be experts in their particular niche. If you were an IT leader at an automotive parts company, you'd strive to learn every nuance of the industry, attending industry conferences, hiring outside industry experts, and perhaps occasionally visiting the customers that used your components as a way to gain an additional perspective. However, new competitors, new technologies, and companies that are willing to abandon the "rules of the road" are changing the game.

Savvy leaders are finding inspiration outside the walls of their company, and apply techniques from seemingly unrelated industries to their companies. Taking inspiration from unlikely places has a twofold benefit. First, it can allow you to identify tools or techniques that haven't yet been applied to your industry. Secondly, it can reignite a passion for your company or even your career more broadly. If you're feeling that there's little left to learn or inspire, taking an outside perspective provides an entirely new world of knowledge to excite and inspire you. Here are some ideas for gaining an outside perspective.

1. Be a student of the world

Too many adults have lost the joy with which children explore their worlds, constantly asking why and trying to determine how something works. As leaders, we can apply this zeal inside and outside our offices. Despite years at an organization, give yourself permission to explore why certain things are designed a certain way, and to look for how that process could be improved, modified, or abandoned. Similarly, let your curiosity roam outside work, when you're shopping, traveling, or engaging in a hobby.

Good design, interesting processes, and innovation are all around us, and an intriguing customer experience at your favorite store might serve as inspiration for everything from an employee training application to a story that helps sell your next internal initiative. Next time you're stuck in line, waiting for a meal, or in a waiting room at a doctor's office, put your phone away and just observe. How are people interacting? What technologies are being used or disused? How are employees interacting with their customers? What's interesting or noteworthy about the physical space? You'll suddenly find that there's inspiration all around you.

SEE: How to keep your staff motivated and engaged (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

2. Follow aspirational companies and industries

Rather than looking solely to industry peers or your customer base for inspiration, identify a few companies or industries that have capabilities that you'd like to acquire. Recently many companies have begun focusing on customer experience, and seek inspiration from the retail industry, a relatively obvious example of looking outside your industry.

There are also more nuanced examples. Perhaps your company sells plumbing supplies through a complex network of dealers and distributors. Automotive companies have long been faced with similarly complex distribution and dealership networks, yet must market directly to consumers, and may provide techniques and inspiration that haven't yet arrived in your industry. Apple has long been known for creating well-designed products, but they also run a world-class supply chain, with complex manufacturing and distribution relationships that could be relevant to any manufacturing company.

Even business models can serve as an inspiration. Uber brought digital disintermediation to the masses, and being "The Uber of [insert industry]" has become a bit of a cliché, but it's still worth thinking through whether other business models could be applied to your company. Could you rent your products rather than selling them? Is there a physical product or a service offering that could augment what you currently sell? Could you serve as a middleman that allows entry into an otherwise expensive product? Other companies have proven that unconventional business models can be successful, so at the very least thinking through how these could apply to your industry will prepare you for potential competitors.

3. Ask better questions

As leaders, we often fall into a default state of assuming our job is to provide answers. We're the men and women that are supposed to make decisions, provide guidance, and answer tough questions. These are important leadership skills, but increasingly, so is asking the right questions. The rapid pace of change increasingly means we as leaders simply cannot have a functional knowledge of every discipline that's required to compete effectively in today's market. A junior designer on our team might have a bit of knowledge that can help push the collective thinking forward, but will only offer that knowledge if you as a leader create an environment where he or she feels like they can contribute.

Try to gain a sense of the perspectives each person on your team brings to the table. This is useful for two reasons. First, it allows you to call on specific people when you need expertise in a particular area. Secondly, it can help identify areas where your team is lacking. You may have a dozen technologists, but no one that can think through how to make employees more effective. Or, you might have a room full of great thinkers on customer experience, but no one that knows the capabilities and limitations of the tools required to deliver those experiences.

SEE: 10 books every small business entrepreneur should read (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

4. Get out of your comfort zone

Focusing only on your industry can be comfortable. You speak the same language, have the same concerns, and often move at a similar pace to industry peers and competitors. As a leader, you may have grown up in the industry, and are well-regarded as an expert in the space. It can be uncomfortable to spend time with someone who has never heard of you, and regards some aspect of your company as significantly lagging or even irrelevant. However, just as sitting in an "echo chamber" of like-minded individuals can adversely affect our personal lives and perspective on our fellow human beings, so, too, can safely remaining in your professional echo chamber.

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Image: iStock/Peshkova

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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