One of my colleagues hates the expression “Think outside the box.” I get why: What box? Why do you think there is a box? Who put you in a box in the first place? Boxes are the barriers and excuses we use to limit the stories we can tell. I understand what the expression means, but to me it seems like thinking outside the box is an excuse for not believing any box can be bigger. Boxes are always bigger than we think. They may have borders, but they should be expandable, adaptable, and permeable. Any borders should be like state lines, not walls. They may slow you down, but not for long. But even if you hit a wall in a box, you can attack it: Go up and over, under, or through it.
When I visited the Seattle Sounders FC football club (or soccer team, for you Americans who associate football with the NFL) that plays as part of Major League Soccer (MLS), I learned there is another option for the wall: Blow it up.
“Lead your own team and people.” Even if businesses outsource some services, this is the way they traditionally operate and define management. The Seattle Sounders did exactly that for the better part of two decades and failed to grow. While the team had some success, it never drew huge fan support. The team had tried to expand into MLS, but fan interest seemed small and the price tag high.
Enter Sounders’ minority investor Paul Allen, of Microsoft fame, who owns the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Allen suggested the Sounders and Seahawks share their management teams, merging their lifestyles and interests.
The Sounders decided saw opportunity in Allen’s untraditional offer. In partnering with the Seahawks, a team with a rabid fan base and massively successful operations, the Sounders could capitalize on the same assets that made the Seahawks winners. The Seahawks’ experience with digital marketing, fan appreciation, and sponsorship solicitation was a major help in ensuring the Sounders didn’t fall into the same ruts they had in the past. On every measurable level—from attendance to merchandise to team record—the result was astounding success.
Notice I wrote that last paragraph in the past tense. That’s because the Sounders have separated from the Seahawks since I visited them last. They realized that while they shared a stadium with the Seahawks, their fans had only a 2 percent crossover rate, so they took what they learned to grow even faster on their own. The Sounders used the Seahawks’ help to get ahead and then flew out of its management nest like a baby bird that needs to think and act bigger on its own. The Sounders still play in the same stadium as the Seahawks, as no other home in Seattle could hold its rabid fan base, which remains far and away the largest in Major League Soccer. But the Sounders are attending to that base on their own. Initial results showed no drop-off: In 2014, revenue was strong and attendance was steady, exceeding capacity at the field as the team finished first in the conference and made the conference finals.
Know the power of “and”
By combining their strengths with the Seahawks, the Sounders created a completely untraditional link that used one very traditional word: “and”—one of the most effective words in the English language for eliminating and even transcending obstacles.
“And” can also make you see how much bigger something could be, even if you shouldn’t or wouldn’t normally do it that way. Consider Autodesk, a multinational software corporation. Its 3-D design software has been used for everything from the New York City Freedom Tower to the Tesla electric car to Academy Award–winning designs. Leading edge for sure, the company is understandably leery of getting stuck, so they keep pushing through changes. This is interesting if only because much of the team has been with the company for more than 15 years. Still, that team has adapted with the times and has updated constantly, right down to the delivery mechanism. Previously, Autodesk had seen the change from software in boxes to downloads, but now everything needed to move to the cloud. Problem was, they didn’t know if their customers could follow them there.
Where a lot of software companies would say, “Okay, it’s easier for us to put this on the cloud and make you switch,” Autodesk knew their customer base well. Many of them are architects and engineers building bridges, airports, hospitals—major facilities and infrastructure items that take years to happen. They can’t switch them out in the middle of the project!
What Autodesk did was use “and” to reaffirm their commitment to those customers and anticipate the obstacle before it became one: They realized that they had to offer established customers both versions of the software for a sustained period of time—and that they had to make the investment to do so. Was that costly? Absolutely, but the payoff was huge: They helped their customers make the transition and became even more connected to them.
Autodesk had the patience to sustain and then grow its market, and, as a result, it developed a lot of tolerance for allowing things to unfold over a longer period of time. The maturity of its people certainly worked to its advantage, too; they understood the need to be patient and to commit to their customers.