I’ve always hated the phrase, “think outside the box.” It trivializes thinking beyond the obvious by describing the box as a barrier one must transcend. Worse, it doesn’t even suggest how to accomplish what is a difficult feat. It’s usually accompanied by the nine-dot puzzle. I’ve never met anyone who can solve that without first seeing the answer.
These metaphorical methods of teaching us to “think different” (thanks, Apple) have never helped me when I needed to make a deal in a competitive situation. But the intent of both the puzzle and the box are correct, despite my difficulty with them. And even as I was failing the nine-dot puzzle, I knew that I needed to master this skill.
Early in my career I was afraid to suggest changes to project descriptions provided by clients. The midlevel managers I worked with had all the trappings of power and success that went with their corporate positions. They had the influence to command the budgets and write the project descriptions. They had positions of responsibility; obviously they knew what they were doing. Who was I to challenge their wisdom?
But then, I began to notice that sometimes they welcomed my thoughts. That was a heady revelation. And I found myself enjoying conversations about new possibilities for a project — possibilities that drew on their experiences from the inside, and mine from the outside. These conversations were fun and resulted in work that neither of us would have envisioned on our own. Better yet, this often resulted in not only a better budget for me, but a much more significant result for my client.
I’d stumbled into changing the context, my own version of “think outside the box” and “think different.” As I became more confident in, and adept at, these context-changing conversations, I began to use the method in pitch situations and found myself winning more often than not.
Here’s how it works.
You have experience and expertise. So does your prospect. When you’re negotiating the project you have the opportunity to ask questions in conversations. Their answers will provide you their insights about the company, the opportunity and what needs to be accomplished. Even more important, this explorative conversation will give you insights into how the project will affect your prospect.
Now you know more than you did. And you have the opportunity to reshape the description of the project by adding your own suggestions based on what you’ve just learned and your own experience.
If the ensuing conversation leads to a redefined scope of work, you’ve changed the context. You’ve provided your prospect with a potentially better result, one created collaboratively. A result neither of you could have foreseen on your own. You’ll eliminate the competition. And you’ve got a pretty good start on creating a good professional relationship as well.