Outside-in thinking is vital to any business leader who doesn't want to be blindsided by the future.  It's about seeing an issue from multiple angles by using more diverse perspectives. This means zooming in and out to obtain a more kaleidoscopic view of the issues of interest. 

Here are 6 proven ways to become a successful outside-in thinker:

 Encourage diverse views: To promote diverse thought, Hala Moddelmog, former president of Atlanta, Georgia-based Arby's Restaurant Group Inc., a fast-food chain with about 3,400 locations, surrounded herself with colleagues of different races, geographies, socioeconomic classes and personality styles. "You really don't need another you," she said. Staying open to different viewpoints helps ensure leaders are not unduly hindered by decision traps and can instead open their eyes to information or solutions that were not previously considered.

Shift perspectives: Dennis the Menace is a classic cartoon character who is way too wise for his young age. One evening Dennis really botches his cooking adventure while his parents are out.  The oven becomes caked in floury goo, dishes and baking supplies strewn across the kitchen floor; and the dog has his own baking mess. When his parents returned to see the war zone formerly known as their kitchen, they started to scold their young son. But then the precocious Dennis reframes the situation: "I know you are really upset right now, but in a few years we shall all look back on this and have a good laugh. Can we do that now?"   Gary Larson's famous cartoons also contain great examples of changing perspectives in humorous or enlightening ways.

Scan the periphery: Early in 2008, DuPont's CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr. noticed several weak signals in his environment that helped him detect the Great Recession sooner than most. While visiting a major Japanese customer, Holliday learned that his customer's CEO had instructed the staff to conserve cash. Upon returning home to Wilmington, Delaware, Holliday learned that reservations at the prestigious Hotel du Pont, near corporate headquarters, had dropped 30% in 10 days.  Lastly, he learned that Detroit's automakers, who were big DuPont customers, were scaling back production schedules because orders for new cars were dropping. Triangulating these separate signals from the periphery convinced him that the company was about to hit a wall.

 Bring in your personal life: The eccentric Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned to his lab after a summer holiday in 1928 and began gathering up various contaminated petri dishes for a good scrubbing. Suddenly, he noticed a small irregularity at the edge of one culture. Many biologists might have missed this anomaly, but Fleming knew bacterial growths as an artist knows the color spectrum.  Fleming was an amateur artist, and his unusual "painting" hobby at the Chelsey art club consisted of shaping colonies of Staphylococcus into portraits of his coworkers. His keen perception about bacterial growth led eventually to the wonder drug penicillin, earning Fleming a Nobel Prize in medicine.

Leverage nature: Gas pipelines in Canada, the U.S. and other countries can run more than 100 miles in length.  One constant problem is detecting where leaks may be occurring, since gas is invisible and often odorless.  Today, high-tech sensors can run up and down the pipeline-- but nature can lend a helping hand more cheaply. Turkey vultures, for example, are attracted to odors that gas companies add to alert humans to gas leaks, such as ethyl mercaptan, which smells like rotten eggs.  Once a gas has been augmented with the right odors, pipeline operators can use binoculars, or drones if need be, to see where the birds are hovering, inspect for significant leaks around there and repair them if necessary.

Remain hyper curious:  Buckminster Fuller was the inventor of the Geodesic dome, a large, spherical structure modeled after bee hives and other sturdy architectures found in nature. He was honored for his many inventions and his face adorned a U.S. stamp.  His success derived from his extreme curiosity about the world around him.  Whenever he traveled, he randomly picked a magazine from a kiosk and forced himself to read the whole thing.  The topics could be basket weaving, fly fishing, electronics or politics. This kind of broad, unstructured learning stands in stark contrast to the eco-chambers we create when pre-selecting the information channels we want and the social media networks to hang out in. Fuller tried hard to escape such bubbles by vigorously engaging in less filtered learning.

Practical Things You Can Do Each Day

·      Create "balcony moments" to take some distance, reframe, and de-escalate unproductive disputes; try to see things from a distance, as if on a balcony looking down.

·      Invest in broader personal and professional networks, to enhance your own radar system and stay more closely in touch with what is changing around you.

·      Reinvigorate your natural curiosity, the kind you had as a child; find joy (again) in exploration, chance discoveries, random walks and experimentation.

·      View failure as learning and always look for those silver linings of unexpected insights

·      Practice disconfirmation or reverse brainstorming; question commonly accepted knowledge and assumptions with new data or viewpoints.

·      In your own organization, try leading up; leadership doesn't only flow top down, but sideways and even up. Manage your boss and others higher up.

·      To understand customers better, imagine yourself stapled to a purchase order and visualize the hurdles, pains and delays ahead as part of the ordering process.

Reflective Questions To Ask Yourself

How might this issue be framed from other people's perspectives? Do others consider me good at reframing issues?  

Am I considered an empathic person who can fully appreciate other people's concerns and problems?  Can I easily place myself in the shoes of another emotionally?? 

How strong is my situational awareness-- do I get blindsided very often?  Do I commonly raise issues that others have overlooked?  Think of specific recent examples.

How can I shift from automatically or prematurely judging and labeling problems, people and issues, to fostering a much more open and curious mind?

In strategy sessions, consider what might be possible now that was not possible before? Thinking from the outside-in should be liberating by casting off unproductive shackles from the past. 

When dealing with someone whose opinions are very different from me--such as mavericks or contrarians --am I sufficiently curious and eager to understand them?

Do I welcome people who are different and do I explore situations that are novel and uncomfortable in order to challenge myself and learn?




My thanks to Nadine Pearce (Global Head Organizational Development, Oncology, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation) and her team for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts.