Management Advice: Vive la Différence!

A bevy of new books sparks a question about problem-solving: What's the best way to look at one thing and see another?
Paul B. BrownApril 20, 2007

No matter what the dilemma, the advice is always the same: Think differently.

Confronted with a strategy problem you can’t resolve? You know the advice: Think differently!

A staffing issue that’s impossible to untangle: Think differently!

4 Powerful Communication Strategies for Your Next Board Meeting

4 Powerful Communication Strategies for Your Next Board Meeting

This whitepaper outlines four powerful strategies to amplify board meeting conversations during a time of economic volatility. 

You need to reconcile directives from above that are simply not reconcilable: Think differently!

Now, “think differently” is one of those things that management books and consultants are always telling you to do. And they make it sound as if it’s remarkably easy to create a list of things you have never thought of.

Go ahead. Try it. We’ll wait.

A handful of books has just been published, to help reorient your thinking. But proving just how hard the task is, none of them has the answer to the question: What’s the best way to look at one thing and see another?

And so I’m going to think differently, as well. Instead of reviewing the books in linear fashion — telling what’s good about one, bad about another — I’m going to show you how to cobble together one good book out of the best parts of three new ones.

Let’s start with Getting Unstuck (Harvard Business School Press, $24.95) by Timothy Butler, the director of career development at Harvard Business School. I warn you, however, that this book will make you extremely cranky for two reasons: focus and language.

Butler expends most of his ink discussing how to get yourself unstuck about career choices. The problems at work get relatively short shrift. And his psychology-tinged language — “when we have run aground, we sometimes fail to realize that this is a necessary crisis; without it we cannot grow, change, and — eventually — live more fully in the larger world” — grows annoying.

But let’s ignore all that and concentrate on his three core messages.

First, when you feel stuck, recognize that whatever ways you’ve used to approach the problem haven’t worked. Echoing a classic definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result — he says that continuing to attack the same problem in the same way won’t be effective.

The second point is the mirror image of the first: Having accepted that what you’ve done in the past hasn’t worked, you need to be willing to consider new ideas and approaches.

Finally, once you’ve come up with those new ideas and approaches, look for patterns within them. You are searching for the insight that will allow you to provide a solution.

That insight, argue Thomas H. Davenport and Jeanne G. Harris, is probably lying inside data you already have or could easily obtain.

That’s the key premise of Competing on Analytics (Harvard Business School Press, $29.95). By analytics the authors — Davenport, a professor at Babson College, and Harris, director of research for the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business — mean “the extensive use of data, statistical and quantitative analysis, explanatory and predictive models and fact-based management to drive decisions and actions.”

The reason you must employ analytics is clear, they say: “At a time when companies in many industries offer similar products and use comparable technology, high-performance business processes are among the last remaining points of differentiation.”

While you could look for improvements anywhere, the best place to start using the authors’ method, they say, is in areas you believe are your source of competitive advantage. That’s why Wal-Mart places a special emphasis on applying analytics to supply-chain logistics, while Harrah’s, the gaming company, stresses customer loyalty, Davenport and Harris add.

Now, obviously, simply using advanced financial tools is no guarantee of ultimate success. American Airlines was one of the first airlines to use analytics to optimize seat pricing, and it continues to barely limp along while airlines like Southwest soar. Still, taking a new look at how to increase profits is a good thing, and that is — at its heart — what this book does. Since its examples are a bit obtuse, let’s create our own user-friendly analytics demonstration.

In the strictest sense, productivity is output (units produced) divided by input (resources) during a given time. Traditionally, when we talk about increasing productivity, we assume a given output and then ask how it can be achieved with fewer resources; that is, how can we do more with less? In other words, the focus has always been on the denominator: decreasing the resources used.

If you focus on ways to increase the numerator — asking “How can we produce more units with the same resources?” — you are indeed thinking differently.

Implicit in the first two books — and indeed in the message to “think differently” — is that you’re going to come up with a solution by capitalizing on what you do best. (It’s difficult to create a new accounting spreadsheet if you’ve never been good with numbers.)

Capitalizing on what you do best is where Marcus Buckingham, a former Gallup consultant, comes in. Go Put Your Strengths to Work (Free Press, $30) is a further elaboration of the argument he made in his two previous books. (Buckingham is the co-author of First Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths.) Specifically, he believes that organizational and personal success comes from building on your strengths (instead of trying to compensate, or learn from, your weaknesses). And he provides a link to an online quiz you can take to figure how much of your time is spent working on things you do best.

Of course, you can always take the Zen route. That is, in essence, the approach offered by John Wooden and Steve Jamison in The Essential Wooden (McGraw Hill, $19.95).

Wooden is one of the most competitive — and successful — college basketball coaches of all time. His UCLA teams won 10 national championships in 12 years, and he was named Coach of the Century by ESPN.

Long retired, the 95-year-old Wooden writes that just before his players took the floor for a game, he never urged them to win — that wasn’t his definition of accomplishment. This is: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

So instead of giving a pep talk, before every game Wooden stressed to his team that they needed to go out there and accomplish all the things they had worked on in practice — making crisp passes, rebounding aggressively, and playing tenacious defense. He told them that if they concentrated on the fundamentals, winning would be the natural byproduct.

That’s certainly one great example of how to think differently.