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Want breakthrough ideas? Look outside. WAY outside.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAb8AAAAJDhkOTgyMDkyLWQ5ZjItNDg3ZC1hZWFiLWE4ODk1MGIwODAwZAI recently met with the leaders of a highly successful company. Sales growth, which had been strong for years, was headed into negative territory. They were desperate to find the next “big idea” that would put their company on track for future growth.

As they discussed potential innovations, the same tired, incremental ideas that had been tossed around for years kept resurfacing.

What they needed was something to shake up their thinking.

These managers had been so busy delivering product, serving customers, dealing with people issues, managing the budget and attending meetings, that they had focused all their attention inward. They hadn’t looked outside their industry for new ideas in months, or even years. As a result, their thinking was stale and uninspired.

When you want to develop breakthrough ideas, try looking at companies outsideof your industry to fuel new thinking. If you are in healthcare, look at technology or consumer products companies.  If you are a services company, look at manufacturers. You get the idea.

Pick one company, and list what’s intriguing, controversial, new or different about it. Be specific about what you observe, and then ask: “How might we apply this idea in our own company?”

An industrial products business, for example, looked at Walmart as an exemplar, even though the two companies are in different industries and are of vastly different size.

The smaller company observed how Walmart has made its store-brand Ol’ Roy dog food the bestselling brand in the world, and decided to explore the idea of offering private-label products. It observed how Walmart has standardized apparel sizes across many different clothing suppliers, and decided to simplify and standardize its product sizes, so customers could more easily specify and buy what they needed.

This video describes this process:

Click here for a framework and example.

When I suggested “looking outside your industry” in a blog post a few weeks ago, readers contributed how they had:

  • Found new ideas for an aerospace company by looking at consumer products technology trends.
  • Developed a new hotel concept after looking at the consumer and employee experience across brands like Starbucks, Harley Davidson and Quick-Trip.
  • Applied ideas from investigative journalism to sales training.
  • Employed GM and Toyota product positioning and pricing ideas within an information services company.

Next time you want to develop new ideas for performance improvement and growth, look at companies in completely different industries than your own.  Be specific about what you observe, and then think about the implications for your own company.

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