“In all my years as a director or better in any company, the absolute one thing I could never say is, ‘I don’t know,’” Andy said suddenly like he was just discovering this truth. He starred back at me rubbing his chin thoughtfully. I was caught off guard that anyone would struggle with this. The thought of it, of not being an expert, scared him. He was afraid of losing his job. He was afraid of being exposed. He was afraid he would let down the people who counted on him to always, always, always have a plan.
We had known each other for years, Andy and I. We were different and approached things in very different ways, he a polished MBA, me a design-thinking architect who, on the surface, might seem to have very little place in a so-called corporate widget-making business.
Andy would describe himself as an overwhelmed, but steadfast, manager who cared deeply about our customer experience. When asked to describe me, he’d say, “Mark is a ‘nuclear physicist,’ capable of harnessing the power of sub-atomic particles to achieve his ever-expanding visions. I got in the way at the right time and marveled at everything he could accomplish through his sheer force of will.”
Despite our differences, we did have a profound amount of respect for each other, and because of that, we debated extensively about business, management, leadership, innovation, strategy, and what made things work. If we had to do it over again, what would we keep and what would we learn from and do differently the next time? This conversation built and built over several years. We developed a shorthand with each other and the ways we helped define problems if not also propose out-of-the-box solutions. We talked at work, at home, over lunch, by email, by text—all the time. We developed our own “jokes” about this conversation, which often made us laugh. We laughed a great deal. Our ideas were complementary and stronger because we put them together in new and compelling ways. We called this ongoing discussion our “banter,” and it was amazing. We were “two sides of the same coin.”
We also held an important thing in common: we were aligned in our desire to discover and unlock the potential in others and our organization.
If there was one thing Andy had going for him above everything else, it was the combination of his brilliance AND insatiable curiosity. Which is probably why he liked me and we, in turn, became good friends. Turns out, I like people who like me.
I didn’t quite make much sense in this business environment where we came to be friends. Though a very competent architect setting up to buy my firm, the economic trouble that started in 2008 drove me from a profession I loved. Construction and, by association, architects were as hard hit as anyone, seeing as much as 70% unemployment. No one was building anything. In the midst of that, a client I had taken care of while they experienced extraordinary growth suddenly came calling for me with a corporate position and a widget money paycheck. Four small children, two cats, one dog, a pair of hamsters, a gaggle of fish, and a wonderfully patient wife were all at home dependent on me. It was a whole different world I would be entering, one of which I knew very little about, but there were simply too many reasons to try. I did what any responsible patriarch should do—I leapt.
Culture shock. I didn’t really understand them, nor they me for quite some time. I moved differently, behaved differently, and got results and manifested organizational change in a way they couldn’t even understand. Or did I? They thought I didn’t pay attention to the right things, didn’t behave like an executive, was loose and fast with what they seemed to think was “strategy.” They said things that made very little sense. I thought they were all wrong. And I, despite a lack of all the right authority, inclusion, and budgets to levy a certain impact, seemed to have done exactly that, done it repeatedly, and in ways they were not able. Or did I?
Andy loved working with entrepreneurs and the excitement that came with building and launching a new enterprise. Honestly, he wants to be an entrepreneur, but he’s a chicken with his own money. Like most entrepreneurs, he’s not afraid of taking risks. But these risks are very clearly calculated and protect him in spite of the challenges they create. Andy had just spent the three years prior to our meeting, building and launching a successful insurance agency tied to the real estate market. It abruptly ended in 2008 when the market went into a tornadic tailspin with the same housing bubble. The insurance business was sold on November 1, and he joined Thirty-One Gifts before the end of the same month. At the time, it appeared to be another calculated risk, with an entrepreneurial upside. Andy was one of the first leaders they hired to oversee all of operations and the call center.
We found ourselves working together. At the time, it was a small company, with less than 200 employees and under $50 million in annual sales. Thirty-One Gifts was a Direct Selling Association company, and at the time, it was a rising star in the industry. They produced handbags and home décor, personalized to be the perfect gift. The founder, Cindy Monroe, says she had a vision of bringing the best gifts to home parties, for all those moms who couldn’t make it to a boutique because of their busy schedules. She knew these moms were working hard and deserved to have that special treatment, to be able to deliver a personalized gift, because she embodied that mom. The business results spoke for themselves, with high double-digit growth years on the books, and a plan for triple-digit growth (100%+). It was on fire and presented a world of opportunity. Cindy, her husband Scott, and several other families had just decided to move their corporate headquarters from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Central Ohio to provide them with the room and talent needed to keep up with the growth of the business.
Andy and I would, by happenstance, eventually cross paths. Serendipity at its best. We each moved around the company in our own ways, but we found quick kinship when we were in the same conversations together. I needed to appease my hunger for work at the scale of buildings and architecture, and Andy needed allies to affect the things he wanted to influence. As Andy put it, “I felt lucky to have caught the attention of Mark and earned his trust. Mark was an unstoppable force whenever it came time to develop and share new strategies that required a level of buy-in and momentum I hadn’t learned to achieve without him.”
So here we are, Andy and I, good friends having this conversation years into our relationship. He the Director of Strategy, I endowed with an even better—albeit vague—title, the Director of Brand Integrity. The 3 little words, “I don’t know” clearly causing such interesting internal conflict. “In all my years as a director or better in any company, the absolute one thing I could never say is, ‘I don’t know,’”
As I muse on his statement, about the intimidating thought of admitting I sometimes “don’t know,” I’m surprised he’s just now having this epiphany. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve spoken about this approach or alluded to the power of these words. It is, however, clearly sinking into a depth it hasn’t ever before. We stare at each other a moment, a content, patient smirk across my face betraying a sincere welling of joy.
“You do know I always open with that, right?” Pause for dramatic effect. He did know. He’d seen it. He’d seen it a lot. He benefitted from the conversations that would ensue as a result. “I don’t know a lick about this… let’s dig in.”
Now, I think we can easily agree that not all companies are alike. Not all jobs are alike. Not all professions are alike. You may say phrases like, “I don’t know a lick about this, let’s dig in.” If you do, you likely say things like it a lot. You may say it loaded with far more excitement than fear, far more curiosity than anxiety. You say it eager to dig in, and eager to learn. It takes a special kind of crazy, one to which we fully subscribe, to realize that solving a problem nobody else has been able to solve is perhaps one of the most rewarding things you can do as a professional. If that is you or your company, this book will hopefully help you understand yourself better and how to solve business problems with strategy and innovation. If not, then you are likely in for a treat, because there’s a good bet you ARE doing it wrong, and perhaps what’s to follow in the rest of this book can help you see that clearly - if not also see everything very different.
This book isn’t necessarily about solving every issue you’ll face or going through a variety of techniques. This book is mostly about perspective. Perspective about the field on which you are playing your game of business, the game of strategy, the game of innovation. After all, it’s only after you can see and understand the field well that you can best choose how to play.
We have all over the years been smacked in the face with a few choice clichés around all these subjects. For instance, “We need to think outside the box.” This statement is ambitious, vague, and of limited help. And… there’s a reason it’s a cliché. In truth, thinking inside or outside the box is less important than thinking about the box itself. This book will lay out some boxes for you to consider. We’ll borrow from a few different sources, each with their own mental model and, in them, their own boxes. We’ll marry and mix them in a way that a subject once vague and unknown, peppered with an overwhelming variety of approaches, can begin to make sense. It is our hope that you will walk away with a new mental model that puts it all together. We’ve named our approach the What Box Way, an architecture for innovation and strategy. One that allows you to understand, prepare for, and practice good innovation and strategy in your industry and your business. One that allows you to understand, and play well, the game. Yes, this book is about perspective.
We, Andy and I, have had very different upbringings in business. Because of this, we have different takes on some things, and thus, we wrote this first section of the book to tell you a little about our stories—where we came from , where we landed, and how our perspectives were formed from our individual experiences. The fact of the matter is the What Box Way accommodates both. There are no heroes or zeros in this story. All characters are welcome and wanted. Ours is a shared model that makes room for both. We may periodically switch between our voices later in this book when the subject warrants. It will happen chapter by chapter. While we are two sides of a coin, both sides matter. And more importantly, their marriage is what makes everything work.
Now, there are some leaders who strive to achieve objectives at the expense of key stakeholders—like employees, customers, or competitors. If you’re used to that kind of thinking, that kind of “leadership,” this book may hurt a little. Be prepared for a pointy stick to jab you on occasion. We’re not trying to hurt you, but I hope you feel it. We felt it. That’s how we learned. Right now, your customers and employees are probably the ones feeling it the most. When you feel it, think of them first. And rest assured, we all very easily find ourselves doing it wrong on occasion, if not far more frequently.
The danger is not that we are doing it wrong; the danger is in not knowing we are doing it wrong. Acceptance that we may not even know what game it is we’re playing, nor how to play it, is the first step. Perspective, and our willingness to change it, matters.