Like any entrepreneurial company, Full90 Sports Inc. needs good advice from time to time. The 3-year-old San Diego soccer head-protection company with $1 million in 2004 sales doesn't rely on consultants, however, for answers to its manufacturing, marketing and branding challenges. Instead, it relies on input from its 21 employees, who bring a variety of work experiences and viewpoints to the conference-room table.
"We don't need [consultants]; we've got internal experts," says founder and CEO Jeff Skeen, 46. "They've had enough experience on the outside that they know how this whole thing works."
Developing a critical mass of "outsider insiders"--insiders who can see problems from the viewpoint of an outsider, such as the customer or a supplier--is essential to doing business quickly and at less cost in today's fast-changing marketplace, says Janice Klein, a business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Business and author of the new book True Change: How Outsiders on the Inside Get Things Done in Organizations, which looks at how alternative perspectives drive innovation and real change within companies.
Merck's problems with Vioxx and Intel's Pentium floating-point error, Klein says, could have been avoided if outsider perspectives had been included in the discussions. At Intel, she says, there was a "wrong assumption made in approaching [the solution] from an engineering perspective instead of the average customer's perspective."
Put Yourself in My Shoes
There's always the danger of failing to see the forest for the trees. Startups tend to encourage innovative problem-solving, but as a business matures, it gets harder to question the strategies and beliefs built around projects, customers and even the business itself. "Can you really question a fourth-generation family about the way they're running the business?" Klein says. "There's a lot of legacy thinking there."
Entrepreneurs who can't tolerate new ideas from insiders eventually hire consultants who often advise the company to do what the outsider insider would have suggested. Senior management wastes time and money gathering information it had at its fingertips. Morale takes a hit, too, since the entrepreneur gives the consultant instant credibility instead of building this credibility in-house. "It's very shortsighted," says Mark Lipton, professor of management at New School University in New York City and founding partner of consulting firm Voussoir. There's a role for consultants, but they "don't have all the answers," Lipton says. "The answers are in the [company]."
Creating an environment that encourages outside-in thinking isn't about creating conflict; it's about enabling viewpoints and getting "push back," says Lipton, who mentions the Tylenol scare of the early 1980s. Johnson & Johnson's senior management held an emergency meeting to decide how many bottles of Tylenol to pull off the shelves, and everyone from marketing to legal counsel had different opinions. The company's culture, however, made diverse opinions not only welcome, but also expected. Lipton says, "The thinking was, 'I push back on you and you push back on me; that way we'll be innovative and understand the depth of the problem.'"
Skeen wants a company culture that's not afraid of failure. Insiders who can think like outsiders come in handy as the company makes headway. "My advice would be to listen carefully," Skeen says. "God gave you two ears and one mouth, and if you use them in that proportion, you're going to be better off."
Innovation on the Inside
Spotting outsider insiders isn't hard; they're the ones who care about the company, understand what drives it and care about its success.
Get your outsider insiders talking about problems. Let their views of customer and past industry experiences drive new thinking in meetings. "This doesn't mean putting them up on a pedestal," Klein says. "Pick an insider who can question assumptions about how the problem is being addressed."
Finally, acknowledge that you don't have all the answers. Teamwork isn't about having everyone agree on everything all the time; it's about bringing together different perspectives.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.