Take It to the Limit

We're living in an era when time, money, and resources are in short supply. It's harder than ever to keep doing what made you successful in the past. But is this really all that bad? Smart businesspeople see limitations as blessings in disguise. At Intel, for example, executives believe that recessions are the best time to make progress. Why? Because to succeed again, you now need to come up with original and better methods for doing things. With this in mind, here are three ways to get new answers to your toughest problems.

Keep looking to the future

1. Don't ask why things don't work anymore; ask how things can work better. Focusing on the past is easier but ultimately gets you nowhere. Instead, keep your eye on future performance goals -- like how you can reestablish contact with clients you've lost. The right question about the future will always get you many new answers.

Call on friends and colleagues

2. Two (or more) heads are usually better than one. Recently I participated in a unique conference call. Beforehand, all six participants knew the question to be discussed and had time to give it thought. During the call, we could share only new ideas or build on one another's suggestions. The sponsor kept us on track and took copious notes. He also told us when he would get back to us with actionable ideas. Time commitment? Ten minutes.

Here's a more high-tech approach: Hold a Web-based conference over a few days with invited participants who join in at their convenience. IBM recently did this with all 300,000 employees; over three days they logged in over two million times and provided thousands of ideas for improving business. Great return on limited investment.

Manage the process appropriately

3. Nothing kills new ideas faster than practical managers getting in the way. Conversely, creative thinking without limits is usually a waste of time; it may generate fun and noise but rarely any real results. To get genuinely new ideas from their people, smart managers do three things: They give a specific goal for the number of ideas they need; provide guidelines for what the ideas should do -- for instance, "We need ten new solutions that can generate revenues of three million dollars within two years"; and spend time getting rid of bottlenecks as they come up. In a word, they get their people to think inside the box!

Limitations are never the problem in business; they're always there in one form or another. It's what we do with them that makes the difference. If you keep your eye on the future, do it with the best thinking of friends and colleagues, and manage the process carefully, you can turn your limits into opportunities. If IBM and Intel can do it, you too can make friends with your limitations.