To Create Innovation, Learn How To See A Fourth Option

Anyone who has significantly impacted the world, and true innovators in every industry, share one thing in common. They see strategic options that others do not see. Here's how to widen your scope.

Anyone who has significantly impacted the world--from Mohandas Gandhi to Larry Page and Sergey Brin--shares one thing in common. They see strategic options that others do not see.

When others thought India was destined to live under British rule, Gandhi saw a radical, peaceful strategy to get out. When Yahoo and AltaVista came to see search as a low-value commodity, Google founders Page and Brin saw a way to turn it into the pivot point of the Internet. When others say there are just three options, great innovators look beyond to see different solutions--what in my book Outthink the Competition, I call the “fourth option.”

When life throws an obstacle in your path you may respond in one of four ways:

1. One option: you see yourself as a victim, forced to accept the situation.
2. Two options: you have a binary choice, to accept the situation or give up and run
away.
3. Three options: you believe you have a full set of options to choose from, because thinking through all three takes time and effort.
4. Four options: you think beyond the three “usual” options and see a new way, a new path.

The ability to think beyond the three options and see a fourth is the source of all competitive advantage. Consider Telerik, a software firm founded in 2002 in Bulgaria. In just 10 years, the company has exploded into 700 employees and helps many of the world‘s leading companies arm their software engineers with tools to better develop applications, conduct testing, and manage projects. Telerik’s developers are some of the best in the world, banging away from 11 offices on four continents: Bulgaria (Sofia), the U.S. (Boston, Houston, Austin, San Diego, and Hudson), Great Britain (London), Germany (Munich), Canada (Winnipeg), Australia (Sydney), and India (Gurgaon).

I got a chance to speak to one of Telerik’s cofounders, Svetozar (Zarko) Georgiev, to understand his company’s evolution. Dig in and you will see a continual stream of fourth options at work.

For example, software companies all share the same global strategic headache: recruiting capable programmers. There are too few of them and too many spots to fill. Most employers looking to hire capable programmers consider three obvious options: pay more than the competition, outsource to third-party developers, or slow down development. According to Zarko, Telerik considered these options but instead decided to go for a fourth option--they created Telerik Academy, a sort of extension school that is a complement to IT and software development and provides education in the firm’s native Bulgaria. Anyone can register and sign up for intense seven-month IT training. This is not a vacation. All students must pass difficult practical exams and only the best performing students (about 10%-15% of all enrolled students) are certified by the academy. Yet, applicants swarm in. In 2012, 1,000 students attended 35 free courses in 13 different major areas.

Telerik wins with this strategy because not only are they are helping to increase the pool of capable programmers in Bulgaria but they can now also recruit the best programmers. “It is like a seven-month interview” during which Telerik can gain far deeper insights into a candidate’s work and personality than probably any other software company can, Zarko shared with me.

Typically the top 10% of the Academy graduates end up working for Telerik. In a business in which access to great talent is arguably the only real source of advantage, the Telerik Academy provides the definitive edge.

Beyond this, Telerik has adopted other fourth options. For example, while most corporate recruiting practices start by assessing their geographic needs (“we need more engineers in China”), Telerik does not even consider geography. “We recruit the best talent regardless of where they are. People can work from anywhere,” said Zarko. (Take note, Melissa Mayer, who recently announced that Yahoo would ask work-at-home employees to return to an office site.)

While most software companies are structured in two parts--half development force and half sales force--Telerik forgoes the sales force entirely. Instead, its customers register themselves, try out the product, and buy more licenses as they are needed. Telerik does have “customer advocates” and technical reps, but no army of salespeople pounding on doors.

I could go on, but hopefully you get my point. If you want to impact the world, grow your business, shake up your industry (see how well threes sound?), don’t stop at three, move beyond. Find the fourth option. Ask yourself:

1. What key challenge are you facing today?
2. What are your options?
3. If you could not choose any of these options, if you had to come up with something
brand-new, what might you do (list as many as you can)?
4. Of these, which will get you furthest toward your goal?

[Images: Flickr user Billtacular and Telerik Academy]

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