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Thinking Outside The Box May Be the Problem

Posted On: 5/30/2013

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TAGS: bbulk vending, coin machine, coin-op machine, coin-op industry, vending machine, bulk vendor, coin-op business, small business, vending, vending operating, Vending Times editorial, Hank Schlesinger, Thinking Outside The Box May Be the Problem

I recently met a young man who was new to business. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, he looked as if he was wearing his first grownup suit. He managed to land a decent job in a creative field, but he now seemed perplexed. Returning from a corporate retreat where junior employees were encouraged to "think outside the box," he was confused that many of his "out of the box" ideas had been shot down immediately.

I suggested to him that they really didn't want him thinking outside the box. No matter how good your ideas, once you leave the box things get very risky and very expensive at an alarming rate.

Perhaps no metaphor has done more harm to businesses than the old cliché of "thinking outside the box." For the vast majority of businesses, including bulk vending, the idea of venturing outside established routine and procedure calls to mind the old maps with unexplored territories labeled Here Be Dragons. But while the unknown is dangerous, the well known could be just as bad.

This is a problem bulk vending operators understand all too well. Doing nothing (a strategy itself) can lead to failure; but doing the wrong thing could accelerate failure. It's a double-edged sword pointed straight at the bottom line for many companies.

The problem is simple. Few businesses of any size have the capacity to either tolerate or manage risk -- and that is where the whole thinking outside the box concept falls apart. It urges businesses to get creative without providing any of the tools to manage accompanying risks. Like all mantras, it comes up short on details and ignores the downside. To listen to some of the highly paid business consultants and motivational speakers who are standard accessories of corporate retreats, creativity unleashes a paradise of profits generated by a cheerful, tireless workforce.

Like anything else, creativity has to be carefully managed. Encouraging employees to act creatively without systems or procedures does not work well. It's also discouraging to the employees. It holds out false hope and points to a nonexistent path for advancement within an organization.

Even in a one-man bulk vending operation, thwarted creativity can be dispiriting. Is there anything worse than having a good idea, then not being able to implement it out of fear of costly failure? I'd argue that the issue isn't not thinking outside of the box. Many people are naturally creative. They will arrive at new solutions and processes with only mild encouragement. The real issue is finding a pragmatic way to test and implement new ideas. There is nothing wrong with thinking outside the box -- or inside, alongside or on top of it. But implementation is a whole different can of worms that is hardly ever discussed.

In bulk vending, the problem is clear. The number of operators experimenting with new products or equipment remains relatively small. Closely monitored test sites are limited to the most progressive of operators. The many operators who still use rack configurations established decades ago are firmly in the box. Which strategy works best remains to be seen.