We’re crossing Mongolia at 660 mph, down from the North Pole toward Singapore, a continuation of an incredible week facilitating 13 strategy sessions, guiding groups toward finding bold, disruptive strategic ideas: fourth options.
Whatever you are building—a house, a business, a career, a society—life will ask you to make choices. Wood floors or carpet? Price per hour or day? You can make the obvious choices, building what others have already built. But that never leads to greatness. To create something new, unique, special, you want to be prepared to make a few unorthodox choices. Greatness depends on looking beyond the three obvious options and choosing the fourth option.
In Singapore, where I am headed now, the former prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, took a third-world nation with a GDP per capita of $300 and transformed it into a first-world one, with a GDP per capita of $50,000. He did this by choosing several fourth options such as adopting English rather than Chinese as the national language; paying government workers market salary levels when most countries consider it near charity; preferring order over freedom. Regardless of how you personally feel about Singapore’s choices, they point to a central fact: If you want to create something great, you and your team must have the guts to choose fourth options.
As you guide your organization toward finding fourth options, five people will emerge to stand in your way. Look out for them, then get them out of your way. Otherwise you will end up a lemming, a follower, repeating what others have done before.
To get your team to see innovative options, you must first allow them to dream. But there is someone on your team, Mr. Practical, who narrows your team’s vision. He wants them to attack the immediate hurdles first. He says, "We don’t have time to dream right now," or "What we need to do is solve ABC issue," or "If we don’t solve this problem, we’ll never even survive until tomorrow." His aim is a good one—to keep your team from overlooking what must be done today. He will have his time, but not at the beginning. Remember, we cannot create what we cannot imagine. You must first imagine a great future to create the possibility of being great.
After imagining a different future, your team will then settle on where to look for the answer. There is the obvious answer, the center of the system, but often the breakthrough ideas come from looking for answers where others do not. Mr. Obvious is confident because he has seen this problem before, and he has solved it. If he is a marketer, he sees a marketing solution. If he is in operations, this is an operational problem. Like a child with hammer seeing everything as a nail, Mr. Obvious knows exactly where the team should bang away for a solution and grows impatient when they want to explore new territory.
After seeing a new area to explore, you team must then create potential solutions. The more possibilities they create, the greater the likelihood they will find a fourth option. But inevitably someone emerges to cut off their flow. The conversation devolves into a pattern of "What if we did this," followed by, "We’ve tried that before." Mr. Expert has seen it all and needs to prove it. His cup is full and cannot fit new ideas. He cannot accept the idea that a group of novices could sit down and find an elegant solution to a problem that he and his expert peers have struggled to solve for years. So, consciously or unconsciously, he won’t let that happen.
Mr. What Works
After creating possible solutions, your team will want to select a few to work through. This is where Mr. What Works steps in. He knows that whatever problem you are solving has been solved before and so sees it as preferable to go with the solution that works. When your team wants to explore a radically different idea, he says, "Why waste our time thinking that through when we know that simply doing ABC, like so-and-so did before, works?" Great solutions require us to unravel what at first seems impossible, which requires us being willing to set aside, at least temporarily, the solutions that have worked before.
If the idea your team settles on is innovative at all, it will exist in conflict with some prevailing beliefs and assumptions. To get people to buy into the idea—to get a budget, win over your sales force, get distribution—requires you to shape existing dogmas. Mr. Cog sees you as a cog in a wheel, who must roll in the direction the boss directs you. He says, "They’ll never agree to this," and so wants to give up or take the idea elsewhere.
Look out for these five naysayers. Get Mr. Practical to dream, Mr. Obvious to explore, Mr. Expert to empty his cup, Mr. What Works to consider, and Mr. Cog to seize the power your team truly has. You will soon be devising fourth options that disrupt the competition, generate new revenue, solve impossible problems. If it seems like work, picture the soaring glass skyscrapers of Singapore and remember that without the willingness to make unorthodox choices, those buildings might be rice patties and slums.
[Image: Flickr user Sergei Golyshev]