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Akhilesh Gulati


Do You Think Inside the Box, Outside the Box, or at the Edge of the Box?

To solve thorny problems, you can’t have either a purely internal or external view

Published: Thursday, March 23, 2023 - 11:03

Efrain entered his office on a bright, sunny morning, a smile on his face. He poured a cup of coffee and took his seat behind his desk. From his vantage point, he could see his staff walking in and settling down to the day’s work.

His executive placement firm had risen from a downswing and was quickly regaining its lost glory and more.

As he sipped his coffee, he reflected on the events of the recent past.

What had started as a simple staffing firm and grown to a high-level executive placement and search firm that commanded respect in the field of professionals had begun a slow drop in its service level and, as a consequence, a slow decline in client confidence. Although he tried to maintain a calm demeanor externally to avoid negatively affecting the morale of his staff, internally his frustration was building. Their placement lead times were getting longer and longer. The company’s overall performance was dropping, and the projections for the future did not seem encouraging. The number of returning clients and new prospects was on the decline. These thoughts kept Efrain awake many a night.

He decided to have an informal meeting with his staff to try to understand the root cause of the company’s decline.

As he discussed the situation with his team, one thing that was echoed repeatedly was that there were not enough people in the office to contact prospects—that is, organizations that would seek their services and the people the firm would offer the organizations to fill their vacancies

His team also went on to further outline their concerns. Obviously, the client wanted the right candidate, and the candidate wanted the right job and certain financial compensation. To match the client to the candidate, his team did the identification diligently, based on clients’ requirements and candidates’ qualifications. They matched both carefully. At times, they even prepared candidates with mock interviews. Candidates were screened before being presented to various organizations, and yet they were not getting hired. The team then conducted exit interviews or debriefings with candidates who were not selected. In all, the work was too exhausting.

So what was the solution? Efrain knew that it was not practical for him to hire additional personnel to identify and call on additional candidates: a catch-22.

Efrain racked his brains and chatted with his college alums. It seemed like a good idea to seek insight from a consultant, someone who could not only review the firm’s processes for effectiveness but also suggest solutions for the problem of declining inventory and placement success. Efrain mentally sifted through his business acquaintances and settled on Triche, someone he had met at a quality conference. Triche specialized in process streamlining, operational excellence, and systematic innovation; he recalled saying that he would remember Triche for “thinking on the edge.”

A meeting with Triche changed his focus to a different approach to the issue. Triche would not focus on advice and telling his team what to do; she preferred to work with his team to understand their process and share some appropriate tools and methodology which would assist in reversing the decline.

Triche started working with his team, jointly reviewing their day-to-day work, observing the workings, and after a short period of time, discussed her observations with Efrain:
• The firm had good processes, although not necessarily documented, on how to identify and present candidates.
• The staff was well qualified for identifying good candidates ready for their next challenges, and thus for presenting to clients.
• The staff was dedicated to the job of providing the best candidate for the job.
• As part of a continuous improvement and learning effort, the firm’s processes required exit interviews—of both the candidates and the client—to share insights, understand shortcomings, and build better relationships.

Efrain and Triche discussed the observations with his team, reviewing their strategy and ideal deliverable, and charting their processes while looking for the root cause for the decline. They came to the realization that the team was unable to devote sufficient time to exit interviews. This was attributed to two reasons:
• The firm’s staff did not see much value in it. The candidate had not been hired, so why waste time in interviewing him?
• The candidate who had not been hired was upset, and that made interviewing a bit unpleasant.

Efrain understood his team’s point of view, but emphasized that the exit interview was an important piece in the whole process. Besides gaining insight into the reasons, it also showed empathy. Efrain understood the time challenge it presented for his staff. Triche stated this as a “contradiction of desires”—desire for exit interview by the staff, and desire not to have exit interviews due to time constraints.

Efrain and Triche pondered the issue and wondered whether the case could be made stronger regarding the benefits of exit interviews. They listed benefits and concerns and noted that something interesting stood out.

Candidates had been identified and singled out for specific skills, strengths, attitudes, aptitudes—but were not offered a job by the client. That did not diminish their worth; just brought to the fore that they were not suited for that particular client, but were still strong contenders for placement with other clients. A detailed database of such candidates would certainly help build up the firm’s inventory of strong candidates who could be presented to various clients on short notice, thereby shortening the placement lag time. An exit interview with the client would also assist in identifying the reasons for the candidate not having landed the job. This would help Efrain’s team in better identification of the next prospective candidate and ensure a more positive outcome.

Efrain shared these insights with his team, and exit interviews were included as the norm in all future processes. Efrain congratulated himself for engaging Triche. However, the feeling did not last long as he noted that his staff was now always running behind schedule due to time invested in exit interviews. The situation was back to square one! And qualified staff was expensive; hiring additional personnel did not fit into Efrain’s operational budget for now.

Stating this in TRIZ terms, as Triche reminded him, it was essentially a physical contradiction: “I want more people! I don’t want more people!”

And the challenge was one of resources—people and budget. Exploring the idea further with this perspective, the team started listing existing and other possible resources that could be used to resolve this physical contradiction. With Triche encouraging them to “think on the edge,” the team considered hiring someone temporarily for conducting exit interviews until the firm was back on track; they get additional staff and they don’t get additional staff.

The name of Alysha, an aspiring actor, had been mentioned during this comment. Alysha had a good voice and would possibly prefer to take on this temporary job rather than wait on tables.

Efrain was skeptical, but he agreed to meet Alysha.

Alysha was quite enthusiastic about the job, and Efrain vividly remembered her response when he mentioned the skill required for making calls to conduct exit interviews. “I’m an actor,” she said, “and I’m trained to read from a script and convince people that I am actually the person whose role I am playing. In this case, I will need to read and understand the context of the script and make the calls. I assume that you will give me a script, or some sort of a checklist of questions that I need to ask. Of course, I am also trained to improvise while retaining the context of the script.”

Efrain decided to give it a shot. Since Alysha would be working as a part-time assistant only, his operational budget would not be affected much.

After a couple of training sessions, Alysha absorbed her role well, and hiring her to conduct exit interviews turned out to be a tremendous success. She made calls with enthusiasm, calmed the candidates who had not been offered a job, restated their strengths, and assured them that the firm would find them an even better spot.

Noting the success of his idea, Efrain hired a couple of additional struggling actors from Alysha’s circle, again as part-time assistants, and assigned them exit/post placement interviews with clients. This turned out to be a goodwill exercise for future engagements. The firm’s decline was gradually halted, then reversed, and this new mode of working became part of his firm’s operational strategy.

A ringing telephone jolted Efrain back to the present. It was a call from a satisfied client, with an encouraging comment that he would recommend Efrain’s firm to his business friends.

This was now, and that was then. What a change Efrain’s decision had made! Not thinking inside the boxfollowing conventional methods—and not thinking outside the box... rather, thinking on the edge. Building on internal strengths and attempting something he would never have dreamed of doing as a professional had turned Efrain’s firm around.

Thinking on the edge has become the mantra within Efrain’s organization. Putting in standards, getting his own staff trained in methodologies such as lean, Six Sigma, quality tools, TRIZ, etc., and membership in professional organizations is encouraged and required for moving ahead on the road to success. Not only does it help staff improve their own processes and review metrics, it allows the staff to understand and speak the language of the clients—a true win-win situation. An open mind and hiring an aspiring actor made all the difference in this firm’s success story.

Efrain’s staff decided to create a short document of the inside/outside thinking and how “on the edge” had changed their outlook and their organization’s path. While it was not exactly new, it was not part of their culture, and a brief explanation would help their own new hires understand the philosophy.

For Efrain, they summed it up as: Internal thinking meant that the organization could build on and tap into company knowledge, work across segments, keep research costs low, and keep camaraderie high. External viewing meant the team members could be more objective as they looked at diverse offerings and resources from the outside. They could build and learn from the external network and be prepared for any new-hire skill requirements being sought as technology and systems evolved. It also helped keep their perspectives clear.

With a strictly internal focus, they were likely to be nearsighted, biased, and unwilling to accept better/wider solutions in the external world. A purely external focus would mean fewer internal interactions and less knowledge, possibly higher costs, longer lead times, and dealing with unknown entities, not to mention a declining or poor organizational image. Thinking on the edge gave them both an internal and external perspective, allowing them to see both the positives and the negatives and better understand risks and opportunities.


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in Southern California. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, an MBA from UCLA, and is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.


Is this really thinking on the edge?

In this parable, it sounds like everything about the system was already in place, and the system was only temporarily changed by the end. The problem was that the system was understaffed, and the solution was for the company to hire more staff. 

Where our heroic protagonist, Efrain, pats himself on the back is when he figures out how to hire more staff but at a lower cost than he previously anticipated. The payoff was expected from the belief that, after getting his firm out from behind the 8-ball, the labor needs of the company would be smaller and the temporary staff could be released.

This is textbook “inside-the-box” thinking:  “Once we fix this one temporary problem, our system will work correctly.”

I know a company that frequently gets behind in delivery times, output, and schedule adherence; and every year, they send R&D and clerical personnel down to the manufacturing area to do menial tasks and play “catch up.” They even offer bonuses if certain goals are reached. Of course, the goals are never reached, because creating chaos in the workforce is not a mechanism for achieving robust delivery times, output, or schedule adherence. The problem is created by the system, and rather than imagine systemic solutions, they believe that they can throw personnel at the problem, the problem will end, and then the system will begin to function as designed. Bonkers; that company will be fighting fires until they close their doors. 

In our parable here, I think what Efrain really discovered was that exit interviewing was a different job than the ones that required his more expert staff. Making it a separate responsibility with its own dedicated staff was the systemic solution.