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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Outside the Box (and Into the Fire?)

by Ira Bryck

Now that it appears that life in the 21st Century not only has failed to produce the overly heralded cyber-chaos, but that we are much the same as we were back in the 1900's, is our next concern the emotional fallout of Millennial Anticlimax Disorder?

It's hard to resist hoping that as we hit some extraordinary milestone, conditions will magically improve- I still get excited when my odometer hits each 1,000 mile mark- I can't not anticipate major transformation when the present flips over into the future.

But will it be good for Family Business? I have heard many predictions of how life will be different in this new era. Economic forces will pressure everyone to either buy or sell; the next generation will forego joining the business; founders all will retire earlier, or not at all. There are theories on all sides, including the optimistic "Mind your own business, make a profit, all is well."

But the rate of change- so tremendously revved up in the 20th Century, will surely continue to accelerate, and you may rest assured that if you don't take the time to consider how "This is not your father's company," it may not stay your company, either.

Conversations with many business families reinforces my impression that there is a too low priority placed on investing the time and energy to generate new and different ideas, allowing oneself to look at the situation in a fresh way. Understandably obsessed with getting the order out the door, it's hard to justify sitting around thinking.

But somebody's got to do it! It's interesting to consider that Artificial Intelligence researchers define a computer as thinking like a human (or, at least, intelligently) if it can: o learn from experience o apply knowledge acquired from experience to new settings and circumstances o handle complex situations and o solve problems when important information is unavailable or missing. So maybe we'll come to computers serving as the strategic and visionary force driving your business, while humans continue to put out fires and follow tradition?

But where does that leave you in relation to Realizing the Great Dream: Being Your Own Boss? What, at the end of the proverbial day, is the meaningful and satisfying aspect of being an entrepreneur? Pulling Your Own Strings, or being Puppeteered? Steering the ship, or shoveling coal into the steam engine?

A while ago I heard an amazing fact: Human beings think several tens of thousands of thoughts per day, but some 3/4 of those thoughts are basically the same as yesterday's (to which a business psychologist friend adds, that 85% of them are negative). Not a likely hotbed of innovation.

When I think of various inventive entrepreneurs (whichever Amazon.com or Pet Rock is fascinating us at the moment) I wonder what differentiates me and us from them… if it's more than brains, more than risk tolerance, more than money to burn, I think it's the ubiquitous "outside the box" thinking.

I'm not saying we are not a very creative group. But so many of are routinely claiming to think outside the box, I wonder if we're not giving too much credit to very conventional thinking. It's as if the phrase "Thinking Outside the Box" has replaced the actual activity. A cliché has ironically replaced what is, by definition, un-cliché.

The classic business owner is nothing if not diligent, erring on the side of 24/7 Nose to the Grindstone, Shoulder to the Wheel workaholism. As a society, we are only getting busier, with no time to spare. But if you were to discover that dedicating some time for contemplation, appraisal, deliberation, even rumination and/or speculation, you'd create more traction, efficiency, and even enjoyment of your work, what would be the harm?

Consider: How would you do business if you had to start over? What would happen if everyone in your company suddenly became brilliant? How would you compete with a company exactly like yours? What else could you do (or would you want to do) with your interests and skills? How can you solve your biggest problem in a way that is completely unintuitive? What kind of person could do your job better than you, and where do you find her? If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently? The list goes on.

And even if you don't conceive of the next Pet Rock, you might find answers you didn't even know had questions.

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