Stretching Outside of Your Comfort Zone and Learning from Unexpected Places

By Patrick Long for Engineerings News-Record

In a period of economic recovery, energy companies struggle with cutting costs while maintaining innovation and learning from other industries.

The first is obvious.  Companies cut back on wasteful spending and reduce capital expenditures in order to shore up balance sheets and protect cash.  When faced with uncertainty and lower oil prices, it is important to give a higher rigor and litmus test to new projects.

But the second issue is not as obvious. Innovation is important to a company’s survival and maintaining a competitive edge in the marketplace.  Companies cannot afford to stand still.  Innovation is about increasing overall efficiencies of processes.  It is about developing new, proprietary technologies to leapfrog the other competitors in your market and increase overall customer share, improve margin, or find ways to achieve a lower cost to serve.

The mandate from the CEO and board is to cut costs, especially those that are not relevant to the core mission and vision.  The tendency is to turn inward so that departments can survive during periods of layoffs.  Innovate groups like research and development can be an attractive place to search for savings.  Risky, unproven projects find themselves on the chopping block.

So—how do you innovate in a low-cost environment?  When everyone is busy shoring up their own base and playing defense, the solution may lie in looking to other industries in order to borrow lessons learned and apply new processes and technologies to existing issues.  While your industry may be in a tight period of economic recovery, chances are that others are not.  Other companies had to battle their way out of similar situations.  Find those cross-industry examples.

Stymied by level of comfort

Companies can be their own worst enemies when it comes to innovation and seeking to push into new processes and technologies.  When a company is young, the entrepreneurial spirit focuses individuals on surviving with minimal resources.  A company must establish itself and start attracting customers, driving revenue. As companies get into a run-and-maintain mode, they develop a new focus.  Processes start to become ingrained in departments.  Personnel learn habits based on repetition of processes and existing technology.  Individuals, groups, and departments fall into a level of comfort that is not easily shaken.  It is at this point where defensive posturing develops and resources focus inward, instead of looking outward for new ideas, processes, or technology.

While there is something to be said for building into a run-and-maintain flow and rhythm, it is important to allow individuals and resources to rise above the usual drone of daily transactions. Task a group with developing new perspectives, ideas, and processes to push the organization further. Make that group’s success synonymous with pushing the envelope on the traditional and ingrained way of doing things.

If you look only in what you know, you will never find anything new

Comfort exists for many by interacting with those that share the same beliefs and feelings.  It takes effort to step outside of this comfort zone and hear divergent opinions, new ideas, and about new technologies.  In an environment of cutting costs, turning inward and playing defense takes the focus away from learning from other industries.  Why would I want to attend a symposium or conference of another industry?  Healthcare is not relevant to oil refining, you might say.  Construction shares nothing in common with the energy upstream industry.  Why would I want to read about new technologies that are specific to another industry?  Why would I want to surround myself with new, when pressures from above are focused on increasing output with less?  I cannot be bothered to step out and learn more.

That’s the wrong attitude. In the culture of cost pressures and squeezing more out of less resources, you need to find others who have done it better.  Look outward.  Look around.  Look to non-traditional industries for ways to solve your problems.  Avoid reinventing the wheel. That is an overused expression but the words do carry meaning here.  Research online about your issue and how other companies solved it, regardless of industry.  Look to the lessons learned by experts in other industries and how they tackled your problems.  Sure, the fit may not be 100%, but the purpose of the research is to seek out ideas that can be adapted to your company and industry.

Focusing on large stable companies for insight could lead away from the best ideas

The last main issue to recognize and tackle is where you are looking for new ideas and processes for your company.  When budgets are tight and expectations are high to hit that proverbial home run with investment in projects, managers may be apt to look to the larger, more stable companies for insight and innovation.  Why would you look elsewhere?  It’s an easy trap to fall into where you look to companies that have had past successes.  Surely they know the secret sauce and can share it. But in only looking at one type of company, you completely overlook a critical group that can serve as the basis for growth—entrepreneurial ones.

Entrepreneurs are smaller, more aggressive individuals and companies that cannot afford to stand still.  They are usually led by individuals that got sick of the suffocating processes and procedures of larger companies.  Their ideas could not thrive in the larger organizations.  So they launched new products, new processes, and new technologies in an attempt to make a name for themselves.  They are the ones who are driven and hungry for success.  They are the ones that have taken ideas and are pushing and pursuing them in ways not initially dreamt of in a larger company.  If an idea is successful in one industry, an entrepreneur will look to other markets to apply it.  They have a drive and push to always be looking at how to adapt ideas.

Call to Action

Recognize the signs of being defensive and turning inward to the point where new ideas are shunned, rather than welcomed.  Establish the proper processes that allow for identifying new technologies, process improvements, and technologies.  Avoid stifling individuals who want to rise above the daily fray and explore ideas elsewhere.  Encourage them!  Align expectations for the team to keep focused on innovation.  Look to non-traditional areas for insight.  Look outside of your industry.  Attend conferences that focus on cross-industry problems.  Download and listen to podcasts and presentations that focus on what’s new and innovative.  Glean insight from connections with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial groups.  And above all else, do not stop the drive for innovation.

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