If You Want to Be Original, Start from a Different Box

I was stuck. Not in the I have writer’s block or What next action should I take? kind of way, but in the literal sense. I was riding an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), which looks like a motorcycle but with four huge, balloon-like nubby tires, and I was stuck in mud, with my two rear wheels spinning hopelessly in the glop.

What surprised me is that my two front wheels were solidly planted on dry land, just sitting there, motionless and unhelpful.

I looked ahead at my friend Joseph who had made it through the mud with ease on his ATV and who owned the one I was on.

“Hey Joseph,” I yelled over the roar of the motors, “are ATVs only two-wheel drive?”

“Yours is.” He laughed. “Most were, until a few years ago.”

That struck me as more than odd. I mean, even my minivan is four-wheel drive. Why would anyone make an All-Terrain Vehicle — whose main purpose is to travel through rocky, muddy, slippery woods — that’s only two-wheel drive?

The answer, I discovered, is simple yet profound: ATVs evolved from motorcycles, and motorcycles are powered solely by their rear wheels.

If the ATV had been derived from a Jeep — a scaled down, minimalist, sit-on-top version of a Jeep — there’s no question the first one out the door would have been four-wheel drive. And far more suited to the task of an ATV.

Which got me thinking: if you want to be original — to really think out of the box — you might be better off starting from a different box than you’re in.

But that’s easier said then done: how can we escape the confines of our own history?

Michael Newcombe is the general manager of the Four Seasons in Dallas. I wrote about him in The Real Secret of Thoroughly Excellent Companies. The recession has hit the hospitality industry hard since I wrote that post and yet, when I stayed at the hotel recently, I was pleasantly surprised by how little the downturn seemed to affect the hotel’s atmosphere. The quality of everything was impeccable, the staff were warm, and morale seemed high.

So I sat down with Michael again, this time to discuss how he’s managed to keep morale high in the midst of the downturn. What I learned was a lesson in out-of-the-box thinking.

In the hotel business, jobs are specialized: maids clean the rooms, golf attendants prepare the golf carts, and gardeners do the landscaping. Historically, in a downturn, you cut each of those positions to the minimum necessary to keep things moving at normal demand.

But demand is rarely normal. During a golf tournament, you need more golf staff; during a corporate event, you need more dining staff. When there’s a spike, the skeleton staff in a particular area get overworked, and performance, as well as morale, suffers.

Entering this downturn, there were two things that were most important to Michael and his executive committee: remaining fiscally responsible and maintaining a high-quality guest experience. So their goal was to reduce staffing costs while keeping morale high — an almost impossible combination. Almost.

That’s where they got creative. Rather than following history, they started from their goal and worked backwards, questioning everything else.

Which is how Michael and his executive committee decided to ignore the silos. They focused on retaining their highest performing core staff — the ones who’d been with the hotel for 15 to 20 years — no matter what department they were in. That left gaps in certain departments. Then, they aggressively cross-trained their core staff. The people in laundry learned to clean golf carts. Housekeeping learned to landscape. And room service learned how to work in the restaurant.

Initially there was some resistance as people moved beyond their comfort zones, but they quickly adjusted. They were happy to maintain their hours, increase the diversity of their work, and learn additional skill sets. Instead of dipping, morale soared.

Michael didn’t evolve his model from current practices. He broke the mold by questioning everything in the service of his objective.

Which, it turns out, is a powerful model for creativity: think backwards from where you’re going, rather than forwards from where you’ve been. Identify the objective that’s most important and then question everything else, especially standard practice.

My brother and his wife, Drs. Bertie and Rachel Bregman, started Westside Family Medicine in New York City, a unique practice that offers patients a lot of individual attention. I know because they’re my doctors. Their practice is growing fast, and they’ve expanded from a single office to two, and are considering opening a third.

The volume of calls into their offices had skyrocketed and they were concerned that details might fall through the cracks or patients might receive inconsistent support from office staff. Also, the peaceful and patient-focused atmosphere in the office was at risk with all the office staff, schedulers, and insurance negotiators buzzing around in the background. Their goal was to continue to grow their practice without losing the essence of the personal high-quality service, which is what had stimulated their growth in the first place.

They worked backwards from that goal and questioned everything else. Rachel, with four small children (and one more on the way), spends a lot of her time at home. So they created a centralized call center in their living room, where Rachel could oversee and train all schedulers and insurance staff. This freed the receptionists at each office to focus entirely on patients while keeping the office environment peaceful. And while the call center will almost certainly outgrow their living room, the system could easily scale to any number of sites.

Perhaps this isn’t so innovative if you’re a credit card company, but a doctor’s office? That kind of out-of-the-box solution happens when you think backwards from your goal.