Thinking outside the box by focusing on the outcome

united-airlines-logoChildren find solutions to problems by not being constrained by what they believe are the boundary conditions to a solution. Innovators are often people who see solutions by looking elsewhere. We call that “out of the box thinking.” Big ideas can come that way, but it is much more likely that we can find novel or even simple solutions to day-to-day problems by not being constrained. How often does your company fail to find a useful solution to a problem a customer experiences because they are constrained by the process rather than the focusing on the desired outcome?

I had a great example of that last week while traveling back from Puerto Rico with my wife and another couple. We had four first class seats (as my wife says, there has to be some perk from my traveling so much) from San Juan to Dulles and then from Dulles to San Francisco. Upon check-in I found that on our flight from Dulles to SFO my wife and I were no longer sitting together, which was not ideal. I assumed they had changed equipment. Our friends found that only one of them had a seat on the flight, the other was unassigned. (Suddenly, not sitting together looked like less of a problem.)

The gate agents in San Juan basically threw up their hands and said they could not help as the flight was over-booked and all seats were in “airport control.” (The process was constraining a solution) As we had a very short connection in Dulles, we would be unable to plead our case there and it was not looking promising. A couple of calls to the United Premier desk met with no more help other than to suggest that we ask San Juan to call Dulles for help. (Again, focusing on the process)

We connected with a supervisor in San Juan who said he would call Dulles, but did not expect any help because the gate would not be staffed for our flight for several hours, but he found a phone number he could try. While he was doing that it dawned on me that we were unlikely to be on the last flight from Dulles to SFO and maybe we could take a later flight and get four seats. (Focusing on the desired outcome, which was to get to SFO as quickly as possible as a group) I asked another agent and she told me there was a flight leaving about an hour later that had four seats in first class but it was just a 757 rather than the 777 we would be flying on. (The aircraft type had no real effect on the desired outcome)

When the supervisor finished his call to Dulles to advise that he got a voice mail message from the only number he could call and it was for “grievances,” I asked if he could just move us to the later flight. He checked, said sure … problem solved.

Nobody in the solution chain ever thought to suggest we take a later flight. They all looked at the problem as how to get us on the flight we were booked on and none could do that because only one person, the Dulles gate agent, as yet not assigned, could actually do that for us. Offering an “out of the box” solution, which simply focused on the desired outcome, solved many problems: (1) we all were assured to be on the same flight, (2) We no longer had to rush from one flight to the next, (3) Stress gone

Are your people looking to achieve an outcome that matters or are they constrained by the process they think they have to follow?

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2 Responses to Thinking outside the box by focusing on the outcome

  1. Great example. We must explore everything and revisit this things that are considered “given”. Many times, processes are in place because “they have always been” or innovations are limited due to past failures or rejections. Thanks!

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