How not to paint yourself into a corner

Michael Feuer

Michael Feuer

This column is not a how-to painting guide for business executives — I’ll leave that to the experts at Sherwin-Williams. Instead, I offer a few suggestions on preserving ideas for future exploration and innovation. Let me explain further.

Hindering creativity typically rears its inhibiting, ugly head when you make definitive statements, either verbally to others or in the confines of your own mind, and too quickly dismiss new ideas as being too farfetched. We’ve all been there. How many times have you said, “Not on my watch,” or, “I’m drawing a line in the sand on that matter,” and sometimes adding for emphasis, “That will happen only over my dead body”?

Eating your words, even years later, can likely cause severe indigestion and can sometimes result in choking that could bring on a premature demise of that next big thing. Littering the bottom of the corporate sea are concepts with promising potential that executives, with the flick of the wrist, pooh-poohed. Most times, that was simply because there wasn’t enough time to deal with the unknown or because of myopia and the lack of an inclination to push the envelope. It doesn’t take much talent to say no, but it takes leadership and creativity to take a germ of an idea to the next level. And it takes true vision to shepherd a new anything through the difficult trial-and-error gauntlet.

Close-minded responses to the unproven are not just limited to management. Politicians particularly have a unique knack of painting themselves into a corner with unlikely promulgations that frequently come back to haunt them in November after the opposite occurs. Backpedaling is probably the method most politicians use to get their exercise.

In a 1966 Time Magazine print edition feature story, this then-prestigious publication asserted, “Remote shopping, while feasible, will flop because women like to handle the merchandise and, with so much time on their hands, want to get out of the house.” Someone might want to email Time and ask the publisher how to spell Amazon.

There are alternatives to summarily stymieing thoughts, dreams or unproven methods. Certainly, there is a time and place for everything, and frequently, you or your team may not have adequate resources, at a particular moment, to pursue every idea that comes down the pike. Instead of saying no, a more fitting response is to say or think, “Let’s put that idea on a back burner so that we can for the moment focus on more conventional solutions, at least, for the shorter term.” This leaves the door open for continued research and refinement of an idea that could ultimately evolve into something meaningful.

Here is where the bucket from my headline comes in to preserve an incomparable yet promising notion that, at the moment, might be superfluous to the task at hand but, at the right time and place, proves to be a killer idea. I use the word bucket as a euphemism for a holding place or repository for things that I may want to explore when the time is right. Certainly, one cannot investigate every idea ever pondered, but at least by retaining all such ideas in one place, they are always there for future consideration when either more is learned about the subject matter or when comments begin surfacing in the media or elsewhere touching on that similar idea you’ve kept tucked away.

Your very own bucket can also become a temporary refuge merely to take your mind off other, more thorny problems or a simple respite from the day-to-day grind when you’re looking for a new inspiration. Alternatively, at the end of the year, remove the mothballs from your bucket and review what you’ve deposited. A fresh look just might ignite a former idea, which then takes on a new life of its own.

Anyone who has ever painted a room already knows not to wind up in a corner, lest they may never get out. Worse yet, more open-minded competitors could use that bucket to throw cold water on an idea that you had earlier but never capitalized on it while they did.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises.

“The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available online at: www.thebenevolentdictator.biz. Reach him with comments at [email protected]

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