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Inside “The Box”

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Catherine DeVrye, a former IBM Executive and best-selling author said that the most expensive words in business are “We have always done it that way”.

This became one of the fundamental principles that is now driving businesses around the world, in the most diverse environments – the need to innovate, to change mindsets, to challenge the status-quo, break rules and conventions and constantly adapt to the current reality.

When you search Google, you get 164 MILLION hits on the phrase – Think outside The Box! There are even 15-steps tutorials that claim can teach you how to do that!

What happens though, when you find yourself to be INSIDE The Box, and have absolutely no idea how to get out of it?

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When you first take on a management position, most likely the vision you have about it is of a perfect 80/20 ratio: 80% of the time you have would be spent on creating, strategizing and innovating, while the other 20% of the time would be used on running day to day operational activities and administrative tasks. You are probably right about the ratio, just that it will turn out to be the other way around!

Now, it might seem that, with so little time available to actually plan and draw out ideas, it is very difficult to innovate. It is not.

Mundane tasks at work can be the perfect method for you to be creative and innovative in your work, as long as you avoid falling into the temptation of the relaxed, low-maintenance, comfort zone that is called The Habit.

Here are some of the tips that I have found to be useful, when trying to get OUT of “The Box”:

  1. Map out your work – think about the different bits and pieces that make up your work responsibilities. Map out, in writing, what was the context in which you first implemented an action plan, setup a process, a procedure, or a recurring task. If you knew then, the reality that you know now, what would you change about the way they are being done, to make them better?

I found too, that this is helpful in creating a more concrete, self-aware and satisfactory view of what your impact, as a manager, really is in the success of the business you run.

  1. Always question yourself – yes, it is true that a good manager should always be confident in what he/she thinks and it is also true that, sometimes, your instinct is the best way to make a decision. However, I am a strong believer that questioning one-self is a great exercise for any manager. For one, it provides you with a deeper sense of perspective and either strengthens or adds value to your initial thought. It also helps you anticipate any possible road-blocks, conflicting opinions that your superior or your team might have on your point of view, and teaches you ways to overcome them and make your argument that much more solid!
  2. Space-Out – once a week, or once a month, depending on your work-load, cluster out in your calendar, time to think. Setup that time just as you would schedule a meeting, and keep to it, no matter how challenging. Find an empty meeting room and choose to ignore any incoming e-mails or chats, and just focus on grasping the ideas you have to improve the business you run. It might not become a masterpiece overnight, but as long as you set your thinking cluster as a recurring activity, it will jump-start the “little grey cells” and eventually turn into a plan!
  3. Write down your thoughts – a lot of times, when dealing with a packed agenda, peer and client demands, alongside hundreds of e-mail communications, we feel that even the faintest sparks of ideas and innovation slip between our fingers.

This is why you should always keep some blank pages in your agenda, or a document on your desktop, where you can write down your thoughts, as they come to you. This way, you can always go back to enhance, develop or refine them and ultimately, turn those glimpses into a full-blown action item for yourself. Like I said before, sometimes instinct is your best advisor, so don’t dismiss your fugitive ideas just because they don’t make too much sense at that time – they could turn out to be golden!

  1. Stay observant and opinionated – every minute of every day, there are things to be learned! Sometimes from people or environments that have absolutely nothing in common with your area of expertise! Keep an open mind, and even more open eyes and ears – you will definitely be inspired and find, in what others do, a starting point for your own initiatives. Take what you need, add your input and you have definitely found a recipe for success! Educate yourself to have opinions about the contexts you observe – in time, they will prove to be right or wrong, but they will always add value to your evaluation skills.
  2. Poll your audience – OK, so you are the one in charge. You are the go-to person for decision-making and for leading the business. But who will your decisions and projects impact? When you will add a new process or procedure, who will implement it?

Decisions don’t always have to be a one-way street – in fact, asking for feedback from your team before making one, has benefits for everyone. It will help bring first-hand insight that will improve your perspective on things, it will challenge your team to take ownership and become aware of how they operate and last, but not least, it makes your team an active part of the solution, increasing their accountability on how they will eventually implement that solution!

  1. Escalate! – For all managers, but even more for those in the BPO Industry, “escalation” is the most dreadful word in the vocabulary! In this context however, it’s definitely not a negative concept. Bringing your superior in on your thoughts, ideas, challenges and road-blocks is not necessarily a sign of weakness or lack of leadership. True enough, all managers should be independent and self-sustainable 90% of the time, but for the rest of the 10% it doesn’t hurt to receive advice and expertize from someone you respect and look up to. Asking for help is not just the prerogative, but the obligation of a good manager, if it means adding value to their business. It also shows that you care enough for your work to leave pride and ego aside and ask for a second opinion. You will find that sometimes, all it takes is to receive a more objective and detached perspective, to re-ignite the spark of innovation in yourself and make your own view of things become crystal clear again!

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Escaping “The Box” can sometimes seem like an impossible task. We are constantly pressured by the conception that we need to continuously innovate. So pressured that at times, we don’t even realize that we have already escaped it a long time ago. It is as challenging to think outside the box, as it is to know when to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Other times, we allow ourselves to fall under the reign of habit and be convinced that innovation is the habit of those with too much time on their hands. As with all things in life, “The Box” is only what you choose to make of it, so continue to question and challenge yourself every day!

 

Author : Suzana Paunescu, Operations manager CGS Romania 

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