April 7, 2016 | by Bob Weidner

A Model for Thinking Differently

These times call for new energy and innovation

“One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.   —Jeff Bezos


Talk about challenging times. You are running operations as lean as you ever have, already running as fast as you can, and things only seem to get tougher. I get around a good bit, as you know. And I am continually impressed at the ways most of you are already looking very carefully at your operations, services and product lines for creative new opportunities.

Our industry is moving in new directions, as it must to survive. As Albert Einstein put it: “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

But I would also suggest that we may now need far more than what is nowadays called “adding value” to grow and prosper. In an industry battered by so many forces beyond our control, the economy, globalization, stunning technological change, shifting demographics, increased government intervention, and much more, it looks very much like time to refine our ideas about critical thinking. Call the new goal innovative strategic planning.

Luke Williams, professor of innovation at NYU’s Stern Business School told the Specialty Metals Conference last month that in this business climate “if you are interested in growth, you have got to be interested in innovation.” He challenged us all to think very carefully about how we now plan for the future, and to recognize that what most of us think of as strategic planning is primarily working on incremental change.  We may call a business activity “strategic planning, when it is simply tactical masked as strategic. “The biggest barrier to real innovation,” Williams said, “is trying to innovate around existing assets and models.”

Consider: most of us think strategic planning is a two- or five-year framework that adjusts our business models by adding a new service or products to what we are doing. Strengthening our relationships up and down the supply chain. All of which clearly needs to happen. And so many of you are really shaking up your organizations. But at the same time, those rattling forces make it exponentially harder to see what our businesses and industry will look like in the near and long term.

To cope with that kind of uncertainty, it seems to me, we need an entirely different critical thinking model, on top of what we have. Call it innovative strategic thinking. A way to come up with the winning idea no one in your organization has thought of, that “something new” that can push your bottom line beyond your expectations. And that means setting up an in-house process for questioning our clichés, as Williams called them, product clichés, and interaction clichés with our customers, and even marketing and revenue clichés that have us locked into traditional business tactics. “You know what we call these clichés?” Williams asked. “Best practices.”

The way to help transform our business models, continuously reinvent our organizations and stay competitive in this environment is to plan for innovation by taking the time to really do it. One way to do that: “Set up a small group,” Williams said, “and allow it the time, a regular scheduled time to take apart your business model.”

Let’s be clear. I am talking about complementing your business, not blowing it up and starting over. In this industry we are not going to design a plan that shuts our doors on Friday and begins with something entirely new on Monday. But we can develop new, truly innovative ideas and business models that will keep us growing over the horizon.

Luke Williams got my attention. Here at MSCI, our team is in the midst of a revisioning planning process. We call it 2020 visioning, but the date is only symbolic. We are carefully reshaping the Metals Service Center Institute so that we can serve you effectively in this new business environment. We are determined not only to help you run your businesses better, but also to help you transform your businesses in a very challenging environment. We are all in that tight box Jeff Bezos spoke about. Our only path forward is to innovate our way out of it.