Inspiration is the single most important catalyst for differentiation.
When we are inspired we are motivated. Thus the etymology of the word “inspire” rings true: from the Latin spiritus meaning ‘breath’ and ‘courage’, and from the Middle English, “to impart reason into the soul”. The soul of a business has been talked about more publicly since Tom Chappell, founder of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, published his 1993 book The Soul of a Business: Managing for Profit and the Common Good, and triple bottom line, or ESG, values of “people, profit and planet” became elevated topics of conversation in the board room.
It is important to be intentional about inspiration: it doesn’t just plop down from the sky. And if you are not deliberately inspired, the cost will be great to your business. Employees will not show up sharing their own inspiration to help innovate the brand, and customers certainly won’t feel inspired by your products and services.
To be inspired is to be open to learning and discovering teachers in unorthodox shapes, forms and contexts.
One of the best ways to get inspiration is to practice lateral thinking. This is the ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate areas. Think for example of the wonderful 2012 essay Atul Gawande wrote for the New Yorker magazine, “What Big Medicine Can Learn from the Cheesecake Factory”. Gawande elegantly pointed out that some of the best learning can come from unexpected places, sectors, and practices- and that when a company or sector is in a “too big to fail” mindset then that’s especially when thinking across boundaries really matters. As a case in point, Kodak would have done well to look outside of itself for inspiration.
It’s all about the remix, and here are ways in which you can get intentionally inspired:
1. Time. Make time to be inspired. Schedule in a cool hunting trip. If you are too sapped to create one of your own, then hire a company to help design a cool hunting inspiration trip for you. Visit neighborhoods or companies totally off the beaten track for your business, and discover new stuff in the process. A recent trip to Havana, Cuba exposed me to both farm life on a cooperative “finca” as well as to a gallery-nightclub Fábrica de Arte Cubano Both did wonders for my sensibility about the need for quiet as well as disrupting my own thinking about silos in the arts, and by extension, in other sectors too.
2. The Re-Mix. Lateral thinking is about the remix and shaking up a routine. It could be changing your morning drive to the office or the way you typically run a meeting: you might change the timing, the location, or meeting facilitator to the most junior person. A recent afternoon spent wandering through Grounds for Sculpture museum in Hamilton, NJ helped me to daydream so that I could return to my full plate of work refreshed.
3. Fashion Thinking. Fashion thinking, which is ways in which non-fashion firms can operate more like fashion designers, is all about getting inspired in unexpected ways. For example fashion designers look to ‘the street’ and to ‘the elite’ for new ideas and interpretations of old paradigms.
4. The 30,000-foot level. Pause to think in abstractions. On a meta level, what questions should you be asking about the business you are really in? If you are a toy company should you be obsessing over market share, or should you be asking “Why do children play?” and let that question drive your market research? What are your mentor brands? That is to say, allow your company to ask, “Who do we want to be when we grow up?”
5. Key Partners. The left hand side of Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas has an important space called “Key Partners”. Switching up with whom you partner can often jump-start your business to new heights. For example, the Free Library of Philadelphia has partnered with top-notch restauranteur Marc Vetri to start a brand new Culinary Literacy Center to advance learning and literacy by exploring food.
Inspired thinking leads to reinvention and reinvention is about new ways of seeing. So try on new lenses: if you love rap music, check out the opera; if you are an avid gardener, read through an automotive magazine. Have the courage to breathe new life into your business.