The problem with trying to be the “outsider” is that most of us aren’t outsiders. We are inside—inside our company, our industry, or our organization. There’s a delicate balancing act between being the person who can speak the confrontational, difficult truths, and the person who can speak these same truths in a way that doesn’t risk their career or job. To see your assumptions, act like an outsider.
While I was the CTO at HP, they still brought in outsiders to talk about innovation, even though I regularly gave innovation workshops at American Express, Roche, Kroger, Televisa, and many other companies. Even my own company needed to hear my message from an outside voice.
It is important to understand that companies, and the people who run them, have fear and uncertainty about change. They need a level of confidence that there is an approach that can work and that the risk of change isn’t as big as they think it is.
A company will bring me in because they want to hear how it’s done at other organizations, and once they’ve heard how others have discovered and executed breakthrough innovations, some of the fear goes away. It is replaced by a sense of “If they can do it, so can we”—in other words, confidence. Don’t take it as a negative if your company brings an outsider in; they are simply looking for validation that the risk of failure isn’t as bad as they think it is.
An Outsider Challenging Yesterdays Answers
No matter what your situation, whether you are the insider or an outsider, you need to become the voice that challenges yesterday’s answers. Think about the characteristics that make outsiders valuable to an organization. They are the people who have the perspective to see problems that the insiders are too close to really notice. They are the ones who have the freedom to point out these problems and critique them without risking their job or their career.
Part of adopting an outsider mentality is forcing yourself to look around your organization with this disassociated, less emotional perspective. If you didn’t know your coworkers and feel bonded to them by your shared experiences, what would you think of them? If you hadn’t invested years of your life on a project, how would you assess its potential and future viability?
You may not have the job security or confidence to speak your mind to management, but you can make these “outsider” assessments of your organization on your own and use what you determine to advance your career. You don’t have to go out with an ax and chop down the “golden assumptions”—those core rules that drive your organization—right away.
My recommendation is to start small and take aim at less-central tenets of your business. Once you have a sense of how your approach is being received, you can move on to the bigger, “obvious” assumptions.