Hail the Outsiders for They Could Be Bearing Gold

August 2011

The person who discovered it was the Sun, not the Earth, that was the center of our solar system was a mathematician, physician, scholar, translator, artist, cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist who held astronomy as little more than his avocation! The creator of the most effective treatment for alcoholism was not a physician or a member of the medical community. He was a Wall Street stockbroker. The initial inspiration for the Theory of Relativity occurred to a bored bureaucrat working in a Swiss patent office. The inventor of vulcanized rubber was a partner in a failed hardware store. Successful entrepreneurs usually are people who are outside of the prevailing system of thought – outsiders who see what many insiders cannot see, like upstart Apple seeing what giant IBM could not.

Major changes in science and society are often triggered by people who are not limited by what they know to be possible or impossible. Often, people who make up a community of interest – whether it is science, astronomy, or medicine – get into a common mindset, what some might call “group think” which limits their fields of imagination and, therefore, possibility.
I contend that the primary positive attribute consultants bring to their clients is not necessarily their experience nor their “secret sauce” process or the methods they employ. Perhaps the most valuable asset a consultant brings to the table with a client is their perspective as outsiders. They have not been immersed in the client’s corporate culture nor constrained by “the way things are done around here.”
People who have spent lots of time in a musty building, often don’t notice the odor. It has become part of their everyday experience. But a new person walking into the musty building can notice it immediately!
Similarly, an outsider can notice idiosyncrasies because they have not yet been desensitized. They can imagine different applications for the enterprise that seasoned insiders just don’t pick up. Apple saw a future for affordable personal computers and PCs in school classrooms – a vision that has come true in much of the world. IBM’s worldview was large computer systems only affordable by large organizations. In fact, the founder of IBM, Tom Watson, allegedly quipped in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Whether Watson actually said this is debated but it was accurate for another ten years. Think how the IBM culture might have looked at the prospects of a computer in every home if they believed only large computers that rented for $15-20 thousand dollars a month were the market. Imagine how their culture may have scoffed at the silly notion of personal computers promulgated by a couple of kids just out of school working out of a garage.
Like Copernicus who discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not vice versa, like Bill Wilson who discovered how to effectively treat alcoholism, like Einstein who created a new theory that has revolutionized physics, like Jobs and Wozniak who changed the world’s relationship with computer technology, and like Charles Goodyear, outsiders may offer fresh perspectives and possibilities.

What’s the moral to this? Pay attention to those people who are outside the system or just hired or perhaps are friends or loved ones of the insiders – those people who don’t know yet that it cannot be done and may have the truly great idea that could radically transform the system.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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