Think outside the box. Outmaneuver and outsmart. Outfox and outwit. In our zeal to out-shine the competition there’s a lot of pressure to outdo yourself. If you can come up with that magic bullet or learn the secret tips and techniques, you’ll have a competitive advantage – yes? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The phrase “thinking outside the box” is thought to have originated in the 1970’s and ‘80s when management consultants began using the 9-dots puzzle – itself thought to have been created in the early 1900’s – to challenge business leaders to use lateral thinking.
The challenge of the puzzle is to connect all nine dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines through each of the nine dots without lifting the pencil from the paper. It seems impossible. And indeed it is, if you don’t allow yourself to think outside the boundaries of the square area—visually defined by the nine dots. Solving the puzzle only requires that you allow your mind, and the pen, to extend the lines “outside the box.”
For around 40 years, we’ve been prevailed upon to achieve uncommon objectives through the use of uncommon solutions. And this is all well, and good. But there is a time and place for thinking outside the box and that is after you’ve exhausted the basic approaches. Let’s take a look at a different, perhaps more common approach to solving problems; Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is a heuristic based on the principles of plurality and of parsimony. In basic terms, it means that the simplest explanation or solution is usually the right one. Doctors use Occam’s razor to diagnose the symptoms of body-aches, fever and congestion to be the flu rather than a rare tropical disease.
You use Occam’s razor to exclude the possibility (or preclude the thought altogether) that the knock on the front door is an alien and not your neighbor. Occam’s razor is a tool to keep you from over-thinking.
And that leads me to why and when out-of-the-box thinking can impede revenue: when it turns into over-thinking!
There is a difference between the two states. Over-thinking is over-kill. It’s when your idea isn’t overly creative, it’s simply over-engineered. And there are 3 reasons why it’s harmful to productivity.
You can over-look a much simpler, more accurate, approach resulting in a lengthened sales cycle or one that stalls altogether.
You can neglect the basics in favor of the exotic, leading to wasted sales effort and un-needed complexity.
You can over-complicate matters and end up with under-performing reps or territories.
I asked LinkedIn group members to contribute examples of when salespeople and managers over-think and here are a few responses:
“Sales incentives can become so complicated or over thought that they completely miss their point and are counter-productive.”
“A common example I’ve seen are salespeople over thinking what will take place during a client meeting prior to it taking place. I’ve seen it get so bad they place themselves into analysis paralysis failing to function at all. They want so badly to say the right things and have the correct answers that they lose their ability to communicate altogether. It is painful to watch but luckily it’s curable.”
“When a salesperson reads too much into what a prospect does or says. For instance, it’s quite possible that it’s not the prospect’s intent to ignore your email. They may just be incredibly busy.”
Sales as a profession and as a process are complicated enough as they are. If you find yourself searching for some creative, out of this world approach to move the prospect along, advance the sale, get in the door, have your call answered, get salespeople to do what you need them to do, say the perfect thing, act the perfect way, perhaps the best approach is the simplest. Sometimes the basics are just what the doctor ordered.
Have you experienced examples of over-thinking in regard to the sales process or some other element of selling? Do you think people should scale back their approach and focus on the basics? What has more value in selling, Occam’s razor or thinking-outside-the-box? Tell me your thoughts below in the comments.
NOTE: This post was originally published just over a year ago on February 5th, 2014.