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A 12-Step Recovery Program to Break from the Pack—Step 10: Team Up with Aliens

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As a leader, you can't limit your quest to the spuriously "safe" and familiar zone of your industry. Don't ignore the breakthroughs that are occurring elsewhere just because nobody in your industry has embraced them—yet.

This article is excerpted from Break From the Pack: How to Compete in a Copycat Economy and is the tenth in a twelve-part series.

If you want to break from the pack, doesn't it make sense to seek compelling ideas and energies from outside the pack? Doesn't it make sense to learn from people and organizations that have thrived beyond your industry, particularly those that are doing things that people in your field consider unthinkable and insane?

The Power of Outside Observation

If you want to improve assembly-line conversion in your factories, for example, you could benchmark fellow manufacturers in your industry and come up with conventional and marginal improvements. Or, you could do what leaders at General Mills did. They sent a number of factory teams to NASCAR races to benchmark the pit crews in action. The General Mills teams came back and ultimately reduced the time to switch an assembly line from 5 hours to 25 minutes.

If you want to show quantum improvement in speed and on-time delivery in the cement business, you could benchmark other cement companies for a taste of conventional wisdom. Or, you could do what Cemex, the most profitable cement company in the world, did a few years ago to turbo-charge speed and delivery. CEO Lorenzo Zambrano sent a number of teams to Houston, to figure out how Houston's emergency 911 crews deliver care. They also went to Memphis, to figure out how FedEx delivers packages.

When 3M was seeking breakthroughs in low-priced infection-preventing surgical drapes, it got some truly innovative advice from Hollywood make-up artists and veterinary surgeons. The point is: If you want breakthrough knowledge, leap outside the walls of your industry whenever possible.

The Power of Outside Partnering

You'll gain even more insight and power when you go beyond observing and partner closely with talented aliens outside your industry who don't come to the table with the mindset and history that's considered conventional in your business.

Partnering provides you with two big payoffs. First, you'll be able to expose your people to state-of-the-art talent and expertise that is unavailable among the players in your current value chain. More than a decade ago, Atlanticare CEO George Lynn allied his organization with 3M to raise the quality metrics in Atlanticare's two hospitals. 3M, as a medical supplier to the hospitals, participated in quality projects on site in Atlantic City and hosted hospital personnel in training workshops in St. Paul. Today Atlanticare's quality and resultant cost savings and patient satisfaction are well ahead of the pack. Atlanticare's new Epidemic of Health initiative is so revolutionary that Lynn once again is seeking partners outside the health-care industry because, as he says, "what we're trying to do is unfathomable to most players in health care."

The second payoff is subtler but just as important. The best partners from the outside wind up questioning the very way you do business. They suggest new approaches to everything, even things that aren't part of your original alliance with them. Ford Canada has partnered with Dell to overhaul its enterprise information systems, to help its dealers manage leads, cross-sell insurance and financing, and document service faster and more cheaply. Such an alliance makes for sensible outsourcing and partnering, but the real payoff comes from how Dell outsiders point to certain Ford organizational practices and business assumptions that simply make no sense. Partners from Dell have suggested changes in operations, design, people management, customer care, and corporate culture that violate conventional wisdom in the auto industry.

Of course, the aliens benefit, too. Working with Ford, Dell gains deeper sales entry into a huge company, gets more exposure to the massive global auto industry, and expands opportunity to refine its low-cost enterprise IT strategy. 3M gains more intimate ties with a valued hospital customer and more understanding of the entire health-care industry. It's a win-win situation all around, but only when the relationship is approached more in terms of collaborative learning than transactional commodity.

As a leader, you can't limit your quest to the spuriously "safe" and familiar zone of your industry. Don't ignore the breakthroughs that are occurring elsewhere just because nobody in your industry has embraced them—yet. Expand your search for superb teammates in alien industries, as well as in universities, art and design studios, think tanks, research institutes, nonprofit advocacy groups, nongovernmental organizations—any source that can help you look at your business differently and lead to unconventional choices. Send your people to NASCAR. Send them to the Rocky Mountain Institute. Send them to Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, send them to Harley-Davidson HOG (Harley Owner Group) events. Go there yourself and expand your mind. Whatever you do, encourage as many of your people as possible to see the value in alien knowledge and partnership.

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