To win in business, sports, try thinking inside the box

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We need a little more thinking "inside the box," both in business and sports.

How many exhortations have you heard, especially during this downturn, to throw away the rulebook, to do things in a radically different way? Steven Williams, president-CEO of Omnicom's Martin/Williams, told the American Business Media conference last month in Savannah to "be open to experiential marketing and other non-traditional forms of advertising. ... Be flexible and think outside the box."

I contend in perilous times you need to think more inside than outside the box. The Gap got back to its winning ways by getting back to basics (including ads that approached the great "Jump, Jive an' Wail" commercials for its khaki pants of a few years ago), and if McDonald's ever gets its act together again it will be because it paid more attention to such basics as better service and cleaner facilities.

Reinventing yourself is a very iffy scenario. Lots of companies lurch from one reincarnation to another, always seeking the magic bullet that will lead them to the promised land. There is no magic bullet.

Out-of-the-box-thinking means you are constantly in uncharted territory, and it's exceedingly difficult to build a consistent business from that position. It is undisciplined when what we need now is very predictable moves performed again and again.

Annika Sorenstam got in trouble on her little excursion on the Men's Professional Golf Association Tour when she deviated from her game plan. In her opening round, she shot 71 by not trying to hit her approach shots too close to the pins. But the next day Annika put too much pressure on herself. She realized that she could have carded a 68 or so in her first round if she had made a few putts, so she started firing at the pins to get a little closer.

What could be more out of the box than to think she had a chance at Colonial? Yet that's what happened. Annika started hitting her drives too hard to have a better opportunity of getting closer to the pin on her second shot, and when she pulled her drive into the trees early in the round her whole game became unhinged.

The truth is Annika has the game to compete on the men's tour (she's plenty long enough) but she got in trouble by thinking outside the box. If she had stayed inside she would have made the cut, and who knows how much lower?

The Eastern Division champion New Jersey Nets, on the other hand, got it right in the National Basketball Association playoffs. As The New York Times reported, "The Nets have a myopic view of their world, one offensive rebound, one steal, one dunk at a time." Jason Kidd, the Nets' superstar and go-to guy, told the Times: "The biggest thing is paying attention to detail, that small things can help you win ballgames."

Paying attention to detail doesn't mean you can't make snazzy moves. The Nets are at their best when they rush down court on a fast break. Kidd can always make things happen with his own shot or an improbable pass to one of his teammates. That's the Nets' game plan. They're not going out of the box. They're playing within the well-structured box they've created for themselves.

That's the ticket for our struggling and tentative corporations: Stay inside the box and you, too, can be champions.

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