Why leaders need an outsider mentality to solve tricky problems

The answers to most business problems are simple and hiding in plain sight. But to find them, leaders need to take a step back.

by Kev Chesters
Last Updated: 02 Aug 2022

“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious” George Orwell

Too many people in the world of business spend their time looking for complicated answers. And too many advisors to businesses have a vested interest in making sure those people think that they need one. But the striking thing about most business problems is how many of the answers are so simple. More than that, they are invariably always hiding in plain sight. 

Why don’t business leaders spot the obvious answer? The Koreans have a proverb for it that I have always loved, “The frog in the well never sees the ocean.” This piece of ancient wisdom is pertinent to most challenges that face CEOs of businesses, large and small. 

When you are consumed in the day-to-day challenges of running a business (believe me, I know!) or when you are immersed in the tropes or behaviours of a particular sector, it is hard sometimes to take a more 360-view. But as with everything from architecture to astronomy the only thing that gives you perspective is distance. 

“The most obvious things are often right there, but you don’t think about them because you’ve narrowed your vision” Steven Levitt 

There is a famous experiment run by Alan Castel at the University of California on this form of inattentional blindness using fire drills. The study asked people to tell the researcher where the nearest fire extinguisher was in their place of work or study. In almost all cases the subject was unable to do so, despite walking past the (literal) lifesaving item on many occasions every single day.

The lesson is that we tend, as humans, to tune out the things we don’t consider to be immediately relevant to the task at hand. This is what psychologists call “habituation”, and it is as fatal to business or brand success as the fire extinguisher example could be to our physical safety.

History is full of examples of people missing what was hiding in plain sight, from the factual to the urban myths. Take the famous survivorship bias story from WWII where the air force tried to work out how to save the planes by studying the ones that made it home, rather than the ones that were shot down. Obvious in hindsight, but it took one brave soul to spot it at the time. Then there’s that oft quoted (but unfortunately apocryphal) example of Nasa spending millions to develop an anti-gravity pen to ape the Soviet ability to write in space, when it turned out their cosmonauts were using pencils. We sometimes need an outsider’s eye to spot what should be bleeding obvious to us.

In our work lives we need to make sure that we don’t miss the obvious answers to our very real problems because we are no longer attuned to what is staring us in the face. Habituation in business is epidemic. Every category suffers from a ‘sea of same’ in terms of communications or behaviour. This is dangerous to most businesses because it means that customers cannot tell the difference between what you do and what your competitors do – therefore you are both easily overlooked, and replaceable.

“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” Albert Einstein

If you take a detached, unemotional look at your sector you will see that pretty much everyone is doing the same things in the same ways using the same words or approaches. These can include lazy repeated imagery, identical media choices (tube panels, anyone?), straplines or benefit statements. 

The communications/advertising industry is one of the worst culprits of this – go and look at the positioning statements of the top companies in the industry and see if you can hold a fag paper between all the pirates, rule-breakers, mischief-makers, or rebels who are committed to making ‘great work’ that makes an ‘impact on culture’.

But my plea here though is not just for finding different answers to problems but finding simple ones. And the key to that is to find what is hiding in plain sight that you may have missed by being too close to the category or product.

When my colleagues and I worked with British Airways a few years back we realised that the answer to how to regain some of the love that the brand had lost over time was staring us literally in the face. It was called BRITISH Airways. The answer was written on the side of all the planes. We just had to work out for them what it was about Britain that they could celebrate and own – hence the birth of “Made by Britain” and the love letters campaign. A recent project for The Gym Group made us realise that the whole sector was obsessed with talking about how good people felt walking out of a gym, but no one had concentrated on solving the real issue of making people feel good walking INTO one. The category barrier was that people didn’t think gyms were for people like them. 

It isn’t a difficult or complicated process either. First, identify the tropes of your category. Next, work out what your consumers actually buy rather than just what you sell. Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, once said,"In the factory, we make cosmetics. In the drugstore, we sell hope." From this, you should be able to work out what has been staring you in the face all along.

It’s not about inventing anything new. It’s not about making things up about your brand that aren’t true. It is simply about standing back with an outsider’s perspective and looking at your problem with fresh eyes. Arthur Schopenhauer said it best: “The problem is not so much to see what nobody has yet seen, as to think what nobody has yet thought concerning that which everybody sees.”

Kev Chesters is a co-owner and strategy partner at the Harbour Collective. 

Picture by Getty Images.