Driving on the Sidewalk: Avoiding Commonly Accepted Practices

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One Sunday morning in San Francisco many years ago, I took a group of friend to breakfast at a diner near the Golden Gate Bridge. Afterward, we came out to a packed parking lot. It was a popular place and everyone had the same idea that morning. Gamely, I pulled out of my spot and tried to make it out the side exit, but was confronted by a car entering the lot. There wasn’t room for both of us in the exit, so I checked the rearview mirror to back up, but there were already two cars behind me. Looking front again, two cars were now behind the car in front of me. My van was boxed in — nowhere to go. I was tired and in desperate need of a third option – forward and backward were out.  How about left? I chose it. Turning left I drove down the sidewalk.  It was still early so no pedestrians interrupted my half-block cruise. I pulled onto the street and drove away, leaving the traffic jam behind.

This is not a recommendation to drive on the sidewalk, ok? 

What brought this to mind was an after-class discussion with students of my most recent marketing course. We had adjourned after class to a nearby watering hole and, as always, gave the day’s material further review. The case that day concerned market entry into China in the late 90s.  The successful strategy in the case was an end run around the existing distribution channels.

Soon into the conversation a student asked, “How is it that the marketing manager in the case was able to come up with such a brilliant idea when everyone else was doing the same thing?”

Good question – and one that I didn’t and still don’t have a complete answer for.  There are libraries filled with research on strategy, innovative thinking, and all that. Fortunately, we won’t go into that here.  Mainly, I have been thinking that innovative strategies are often borne from two complementary impulses.  One is the refusal to accept the options presented as the only possible options.  Think of it as finding the third way when offered a choice, or a fourth, or fifth way, and so on.  The idea is to find something that wasn’t offered as a choice — to drive on the sidewalk.

The other impulse is desperation. You lack budget, market share, and have a weak offering.  You have nothing going in your favor and yet are expected to compete. Maybe you have even tried everything else – the commonly accepted practices – and are tired of suffering. Often there is no greater motivator than getting your butt kicked continuously with no end in sight. Desperate times are a great fountainhead for innovative thinking.

Innovative strategies are not for the faint-hearted. Commonly accepted practices (CAP) have their own built in defense: Everybody does it this way; it’s standard industry practice; we did it this way last year; we have always done it this way.  CAP often hides under a thin veil of common sense, however, it is inherently flawed.  If everybody does it, then everybody knows it. And if everybody knows it, then eventually everybody knows how to counter it and if they have resources greater than you, they will counter it very well and you’ll crushed.

Several years ago, I worked with a marketing director whose company’s market share was small, its products outdated, with weak distribution, limited resources and relatively high price.  (Honestly, it was amazing he managed to come to work every day.)  When we looked at the marketing he’d inherited it was distinctly CAP – competing and losing in the same categories with the same tired tactics. When I asked about it, he said that was what everybody did. Well, I asked, how did it go last year?  We lost money.  Right – so we know the plan won’t work. He agreed and began drawing up a plan focusing on niche market, which proved surprisingly successful. The next year we brainstormed up an even more daring idea to focus on small events and social media, which was just emerging, rather than using consumer expos and advertising. And you know what? The home office pulled the plug. The company had suffered downturns in other markets and was retreating. We were out of time and money. We should have headed for the sidewalk sooner.

(This originally appeared at Globis.jp, in a series on critical thinking.)