Photo credit: Brooke Timons / ABC

Why leaders should encourage out-of-the-box thinking

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal  on March 3, 2024.

I frequently write about the need to demonstrate your value proposition when searching for a new job. An important element of your value proposition is your ability to solve problems by exercising initiative and creativity and by breaking paradigms—the accepted ways of doing things. This will differentiate you from other job applicants. I wrote a column on this subject in July 2018. This is an update of that column.

As the leader of your organization, how many times do you hear from employees that something can’t be done? When I am told this, I respond, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Find a way to do it.”

When I was the president of my company’s Canadian subsidiary, I led a team attempting to financially justify a new manufacturing plant in order to supply one of our products to a small geographic market in Alberta. There were insufficient revenues and cash flow to achieve a rate of return on the investment needed to justify the plant’s construction.

This type of plant would normally be staffed by three people on a one-shift operation, led by a plant manager. The CEO of our company asked if it would be possible to design the plant with lower capital cost and to operate with a two-shift self-managed crew without a plant manager—one person on the first shift and one on the second shift, something that had never been done before. My response was, “So, you want us to design a lower capital cost plant run by fewer people and with no management? These objectives are mutually exclusive!” The CEO just smiled and said, “Break your paradigms. I know you and your team can do this.” 

Due to his challenge, we changed our paradigms and redesigned the plant to reduce its capital cost and the number of people needed to staff it. The rate of return increased to above the threshold to fund the investment, and we were given approval by the board to build the plant.

This new plant design became the model for future plants of its type and gave us a very significant competitive advantage in the marketplace. The thought process we went through to design the plant was foundational to the company’s subsequent continuous improvement philosophy.

Photo credit: Brooke Timons / ABC

In the film “Pearl Harbor,” soon after the U.S. declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to strike back by bombing Tokyo. These military leaders offered reason after reason for why it couldn’t be done—the U.S. long range bombers didn’t have the necessary range from the nearest U.S. base on Midway Island, Russia wouldn’t let the U.S. launch from Russian territory, etc. Roosevelt said to them, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.” 

What Roosevelt did in this dramatic depiction was challenge the existing paradigms of his military leaders. He wanted them to be innovative and think outside the box. It took the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare to do so, an individual you would not necessarily expect to come up with a solution to this challenge. 

He proposed that B-25 bombers carrying extra fuel be launched off an aircraft carrier that would sail within a distant range of Tokyo, reducing risk to the carrier. After launch, the carrier would turn back, and the planes would fly to China and land there.

This bombing mission over Tokyo is enshrined in history as the Doolittle Raid, named for Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who trained the pilots and led the bombing mission. Even though little damage was done to Japan’s military capability, it provided a needed boost to American morale, and at the same time showed the Japanese that they were within the reach of American bombers.

When “something can’t be done,” there is usually an alternate creative path that can achieve the result desired, or a similar result that might serve the purpose originally intended. Leaders must encourage out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking for this process to take place. 

If you are searching for a position, include in your resume how you broke paradigms in previous positions to solve problems. Ensure that this is a focal point during your interview. It will differentiate you from others applying for the position.

Leaders, whenever you are told something can’t be done, challenge your direct reports to find a way to do it. You will be surprised at what your organization can accomplish. 

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read columnist on leadership. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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