"So, are you happy with the final output?" I asked the client, knowing I was likely to get an affirmative answer because we had just completed a session that reduced their time-to-market cycle from 120 days to 87 days, actually three days shorter than the target.
"I'm very happy," said the client, smiling at me.
I probed further. We had uncovered hundreds of ways to shorten their production cycle, dozens of timesaving steps, it seemed, at each stage of the production process. "So, what are some of the newer, more radical ideas that wound up in the final mix?" I asked.
The client wrinkled his brow as he pondered this question. He finally spoke up. "I don't think there were any new ideas in the final mix," he said, not the least bit smugly.
I pretended to remain cool. These people had just paid my company a good deal of money to help them through the birth canal of this process. They had been a great client over the years, bringing us in frequently to help them tackle big challenges and opportunities. I hoped the answer to my question was not going to backfire on me. I had to get to the bottom of this.
"Alan," I said. "You're happy with the session?"
"That's right," he answered.
"And we did come up with a ton of new ideas, didn't we?" I queried.
"That's right," he affirmed.
"But the final output included nothing you hadn't seen before."
"I'm sorry," I admitted, "but I don't get it."
He thought for a while before he proceeded. "Well, we may have had all of those ideas before, in different forms and at different times, when tossing around ways to get to market quicker, but we never pulled the trigger on them prior to today."
I remained silent, taking in this interesting phenomenon. My client continued with his explanation, "I guess stirring up the pot with so many new ideas, many of which were pretty radical, kind of put some of our old radical ideas into perspective and made them look a little more practical, a little safer."
"Interesting," I said. Then I fell into a brief silence to think about what had just become clear to me.
We had solved my client's problem. He and his team had uncovered a plethora of truly new ideas, but they were going with a solution that included none of them. And they were happy.
Limited Acceptable Range
Then and there it occurred to me that I had seen this circumstance before, a company or individual who didn't pull the trigger on new ideas but was nonetheless happy with the brainstorming session conducted to find new ideas. I had been part of this strange phenomenon before, but now I more fully understood it. They had expanded their acceptable range of ideas. They had done it by coming up with an abundance of new ideas, many of which were beyond the previous fringe of acceptability, and, by contrast, the old fringe ideas now seemed less scary and risky. In very much the same way as Lewis and Clark's exploration of the great Northwest made the previous frontier boundary seem less remote and more welcoming. A lot of things fell into place for me that day.
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