A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of keeping your eyes open for opportunities to grow and expand your business by looking for adjacent areas in which to extend your product and service offerings. This basic concept, which I call sliding to the side, is an inside-out approach to growing your business. 

Another, equally valuable way to grow your company is an outside-in approach to improving how you are doing things, which I call lateral learning. Basically, instead of working to extend your areas of impact and influence beyond the virtual four walls of your business, here the idea is that you explore, examine, evaluate, and incorporate the best approaches and ideas you can find outside of your own shop. You're never going to have all the great ideas yourself or develop all the best solutions internally, so feel free to copy or steal the best practices from anyone and anyplace you can. (Just don't copy their mistakes.) 

One of the amazing things about lateral learning is that you can often learn much more from your peers, role models, and even competitors than you can from any teacher, class, book, or lecture. Think of this process as a stepped-up and hyper-intelligent osmosis, in which you consciously increase the focus and the energy devoted to checking out what and how others are doing and what is (and isn't) working. There's no limit to what you can learn if you're not afraid to ask or too embarrassed or shy to inquire. But learning doesn't happen by itself; it's got to be part of an ongoing effort and commitment to continually iterating and raising the bar. 

You can try this strategy anywhere and in a variety of ways, including joining networking or mastermind groups, but I've found that one of the best places to take advantage of lateral learning is in a startup incubator or accelerator. In these spaces (like our 1871 facility in Chicago), there are literally thousands of people working every day to create and build hundreds of companies. Provided that you aren't in a glorified coffee shop or co-working real estate play, you can tap into a constant flood of educational opportunities, critical thoughts, game-changing ideas, and new approaches and technologies as new entrepreneurs constantly move in, move up, or move out of the place.

These companies may be growing or about to be going, but the founders are spending every day just like you facing the same kinds of challenges, coming up with new and novel solutions, and suffering all the ups and downs of the startup process that we know and love so well. And you can learn more from them--and their bumps, bruises, triumphs, trials, and terrors--than from just about any other source. 

As you learn by looking and listening, keep an eye out for these three trends that are driving rapid and radical change:

1. Solution migration: Increasingly, we're seeing a quick and effective technology solution (like, say, precision drug dosing cartridges) in one industry migrate rapidly to other industries (like self-service food and beverage providers) with just as much success and impact. Smart players in almost every major industry have figured this out and are aggressively pursuing these kinds of parallel research and investigation programs. And they're also stepping up to invest in and buy more and more startups as M&A is rapidly becoming the new R&D. 

2. Cross-industry pollination: An entirely separate, but equally extensive area for lateral learning is more about behavioral benchmarks and expectations rather than technologies. There are many crucial components of launching your business in the new digital marketplace. You need to see what works socially in adjacent businesses, see what is reasonable to expect from consumers these days (and what they expect from you), and understand the new dimensions of self-service and constant connectivity. The trick here is to let someone else do the first round of experimenting and seeing what and whether anything blows up in their faces before you make your moves. It's always better to let the other guys make the first mover mistakes--and to be a smarter fast follower. 

3. Inexpensive adaptation: It's not critical or essential that your version of a copied or borrowed solution be gold-plated or crazy expensive at the outset. Try it first with duct tape and chewing gum and see what happens before you bet the farm. You'll learn a lot (and maybe you'll lose a little), but you'll never know what can work for you if you don't try. Just don't put both feet into the pond until you know how deep the water is. 

Each of these approaches offers value and opportunities for your company as long as you spend the time to think about what they can bring to your business. Keep in mind that the power and value of a change isn't necessarily related to its size. Sometimes the most valuable and important aspect of these things isn't about how much you have to change to make a difference, but exactly how small a change needs to be to make a big impact.

Published on: Nov 11, 2014