But my business is different . . .

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve been told “Yes, but, my business is different.” There are other similar statements that try to make the same point. People seem to have a desire to be unique. We also want to excuse ourselves from admitting that others may have come up with a solution to a challenge we have yet to solve. So we comfort ourselves by saying, “Yes, but my business or company or industry is different.”

Well, it’s true that every person and every business is different in some way. It may even be true that the way I solved a similar challenge will not fit comfortably with your business. My experience is that a company’s being unique to the point that learning from outside the industry is not possible is the exception rather than the rule. I gained this experience because in my engineering work we found that checking with other engineers to see how they solved problems cut out a great deal of design time. Most of my colleagues, though quite conservative on the engineering basics (reliability, cost, simplicity, elegance, etc.), were progressive in that they were open to other ideas for solving problems regardless of the source. There was very little “NIH” syndrome or “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I believe this was largely due to the speed with which things change in the electronics industry. We had no choice but to be always checking for the newest solutions from colleagues, competitors, outside the industry or from members within our own group working on other projects.

My career then took me into management in procurement, sales, marketing, business process re-engineering, operations and now consulting on my own. Each step along the way I learned the power of looking for solutions to my own challenges outside the company and even outside the industry. It is amazing. I feel very grateful for that education because it allows me to do what I love to do – help people grow their businesses and become effective leaders.

The lesson here is not just that our companies aren’t so unique in the larger scheme of things. It’s that we can greatly leverage ourselves if we are willing to learn from others, especially those who are “different.” I work with a group of business owners/leaders who are all from different industries, different size companies and certainly different personalities. This group convenes each month to help each other with their business challenges. It is an eye-opener to see how often one of the smaller firms has solved a problem or had experience with a challenge that directly relates to an issue with which the larger company is dealing. Similarly, it is interesting how often someone from one industry has solved a problem in a manner that is relatively new to a colleague from a different industry – yet the solution holds real promise for their colleague.

A current, practical example of what I’m talking about is how Quebec solved a sticky problem with it’s H1N1 vaccine queues by taking a leaf out of Disney’s FastPasses book. Here is a national health organization turning to someone completely outside their industry to learn how to manage people queues. Another, not so current example, is the collaboration on scheduling between the semiconductor factory loading algorithms and those techniques used by the airline industry for passenger, crew, equipment and gate scheduling. It takes some real insight to understand that others may have already solved your exact problem or something quite similar. Why reinvent the wheel?

One of the values of a competent consultant is providing conservation of knowledge. The knowledge of how to address a challenge in your organization by utilizing the experience gained in a different industry and then passing that knowledge on to your organization is what I call “conservation of knowledge.” That is why I so highly value the experience I gained through my work in the semiconductor industry. My customers were all in different industries solving a wide variety of design puzzles utilizing the products we made. I was often able to put non-competing customers in touch with each other to share how they used our products in unique ways to solve common problems. This proved to be quite valuable to those willing to learn and share. It helped to conserve – and spread – knowledge.

We are running tight ships these days, and many of us are looking for creative ways to minimize costs and reduce work. Have you thought about how to leverage and conserve knowledge through collaboration with others? Do you have a private advisory board to leverage leadership and management knowledge? Have you looked outside your industry for solutions to challenges that you’re facing? “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein.