Why SMEs need to think outside the box

NatWest Business Builder: Building a growth mindset

Meet three trail-blazing entrepreneurs who have achieved their business goals by doing things differently.

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“Don’t be afraid to dream something, and to try and create it”

Olivia Wollenberg founded Livia’s Kitchen, a range of sweet treats with nutritional twists that’s stocked in Selfridges, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols, Sainsbury’s and Whole Foods.

How do you define ‘thinking outside the box’?

“Trying not to follow the crowd and not being afraid to be bold in your different ideas.”

What’s the value of doing things differently?

“As a new brand, I think reinventing the wheel can be as effective as doing something completely novel. You shouldn’t do something different just to be different. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to bring to market products that have never existed before. They’re totally novel in themselves but are a spin on a more conventional treat.”

How has this thinking transformed your business?

“I believe people like to see something different but don’t want it to be too unfamiliar, as people are risk averse. They’re more likely to buy something if it feels a little familiar to them, so I try and be bold and different in my ideas, while still ensuring that people understand the products and are enticed to try them.”

What lessons have you learned about innovation and creativity?

“Don’t be afraid to dream something one night, and to try and create it. I’ve dreamt up all my products and worked very hard to find ways to bring those dreams to market. People respect my brand for innovating in the way that we do, and now they trust that the quality of the products will always be incredibly high. You can be creative and innovative in your brand, your marketing technique and how you grow your business.”

Top piece of advice?

“Have fun and keep the passion alive. Building a business is such hard work, and there are many challenges to overcome every single day, and without the passion this could become unmanageable. For me this isn’t work – this is my life and I love every day.”

“Experiment with different ways of doing things”

Marja Verbon co-founded Jump.Work, a company with a mission to help people find jobs that really fit them and for businesses to find people that they might not otherwise have considered.

How do you define ‘thinking outside the box’?

“For me, thinking outside the box is all about taking on a different perspective. We all operate within our own ‘box’ and have our own implicit assumptions and ways of doing things. If you can be aware and open to challenging these when coming up with an idea or solution, the solution you get to is much better.”

What’s the value of doing things differently?

“It’s the only way to discover what works or not. At Jump.Work, we experiment constantly. We encourage the team to look at different ways of doing things – you never know when you’ll uncover the spark that really sets things on fire.”

How has this thinking transformed your business?

“When you truly do something different in the market, your customers sit up and take notice. Thinking differently is an approach we take throughout our company – in our tech team, in our marketing and sales team and so on.

“For example, we tested skills-based assessments on our platform as a way to assess a candidate’s true competencies. What started off as an experiment has now become a fundamental part of our business and one of the parts of our platform our clients love (and use) most. Clients are starting to change their hiring decisions based on this enriched information and it’s become must-have.”

What lessons have you learned about innovation and creativity?

“Creativity in business isn’t about one great idea, and the responsibility doesn’t lie with just one person. At Jump.Work, creativity is a team effort. This healthy friction of different perspectives always gets us to a better solution in the end. Innovation only comes with giving people the permission to fail. From failures often come breakthroughs.”

Top piece of advice?

“Work with people who are very different from you and who bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. Work with them to solve the problem you’re all passionate about. Great minds certainly do not think alike.”

“Keep the customer in mind”

Romi Savova founded online pension manager PensionBee, which helps customers combine and manage their pensions online.

How do you define ‘thinking outside the box’?

“It doesn’t always mean coming up with radical ideas – it can mean seeing things simply and clearly, and in a way that’s different from conventional wisdom.”

What’s the value of doing things differently?

“Different is only ‘good’ if it results in things being cheaper, faster or better for the customer. Ultimately we’re here to serve customers, and being different should always further the goal of improving the customer experience – in our case, in pensions.”

How has this thinking transformed your business?

“We know that consumers are busy, their time is valuable and that they want to sort out their retirement quickly and simply, so they can confidently get on with their jobs, their families and so on. Beyond transforming our business, we believe thinking differently will transform the whole pensions industry.”

What lessons have you learned about innovation and creativity?

“If you pursue innovation and creativity for the benefit of the customer, innovation and creativity will usually come from those closest to the customer: in our case, our ‘beekeepers’ [PensionBee’s version of account managers]. You don’t need a chief innovation officer to have good ideas. Good ideas are all over your company – what you need is a good way to listen.”

Top piece of advice?

“Don’t give up, even if things feel very difficult. Giving up is a sure-fire way of failing. Sometimes things get very difficult and tricky, but as long as you stand on the side of what’s right, you will win.”

Five techniques to boost creative thinking

Claire Bridges, founder of Now Go Create and author of In Your Creative Element, shares her top tips to encourage creativity:

  1. Be a rebel. Successful creative people often go against the grain – they question everything and have no problem arguing a different point of view.
  2. Silence is not always golden. Research shows that low-level background noise can aid creative ideas, rather than complete silence.
  3. Switch off your inner critic. Give free rein to your stream of consciousness when you’re generating ideas and don’t let the judging voice in your head put you off.
  4. Think like a scientist. In science, trial and error are part of the process – not failure, but learning. If you don’t succeed first time, assess and try another way.
  5. Be two-faced. Researcher Albert Rothenberg coined the term ‘Janusian thinking’ – the ability to hold completely opposing views at the same time. When you’ve generated a number of ideas, choose one and deliberately find an opposing point of view to your position.


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