Need new ideas? Borrow them!!!

Learning from the best of the best can help a big vision succeed

Some of the best innovators I've met have been borrowers. Intel borrowed marketing techniques to sell computer chips as if they were potato chips. Chapparal Steel, with its steel mini-mills, discovered ways to produce casting moulds from a Mexican company. When Robert Sandwich was the chief executive of Raychem Corp., an electronics company, he instituted a not-invented-here award for the person or group that did the best job of adapting an idea from somewhere else.

All great borrowers - perhaps all visionary leaders - know this secret: Learning from the best of the best can help a big vision succeed. Visionary leaders open their minds to new ideas, challenge their assumptions and scrutinise their performance. Borrow these tips to become a visionary leader:

1. Look Far and Wide

Virtuosos and standard-setters are not the monopoly of any particular place. When top leaders at the British Broadcasting Corp. decided their organisation's culture needed to change, they visited seven North American companies known for workplace excellence, including Southwest Airlines, Cisco Systems and the Container Store.

They described what they found, challenging their colleagues to stretch their thinking about how to achieve the BBC's goal of becoming the world's best creative organization. This openness to learning was encouraged at the time by a visionary director general from commercial television, Gregory Dyke, who ran the organisation from 2000 to 2004.

Even problem-ridden places can be sources of innovation. Inner-city banks owned by the Fleet Financial Group - now part of Bank of America - were sources of leading-edge ideas in retail banking. Fleet had to innovate to deal with diverse, multilingual customers in run-down neighbourhoods in the US that are largely populated by immigrants.

Another example is Brazil, a centre of excellence in cash management techniques. High inflation made it necessary for financial firms to find better ways to close transactions fast.

2. Embrace World Standards
The global information economy continues to make world standards the highest standards - despite terrorist attacks, global recessions, anti-free-trade protests and protectionist moves to limit the flow of capital or goods (or even to block access to websites in particular countries).

Even if they are not geographically ambitious, local companies can't succeed by being the best in their neighbourhoods. Increasingly, they must meet the standards of the best in the world just to keep their business.

A major force behind this trend is the buying habits of giant companies. Large companies have changed their purchasing patterns dramatically, consolidating their supply base and using a global supply chain. The benefits of technology, the ease of travel and the ubiquity and convenience of an international infrastructure - like overnight package delivery - means that large international companies no longer have to buy from suppliers in the places where they manufacture or sell. They seek fewer suppliers who operate with the highest standards and can deliver what they need, anywhere in the world.

World standards are also pushed by professions that increasingly operate in world labour markets. Scientists, engineers, accountants, lawyers and management consultants are educated disproportionately in the United States, recruited to work around the world and carry the desire for global standards across borders.

When global variety appears everywhere, the best in the world becomes a standard for what people find at home. Standards for good Japanese sushi are now the same in Brazil or Boston. Local differences have not been eliminated; climate still shapes business practices despite air conditioning, to use just one area of difference. And local preferences have not completely given way to homogenised tastes. But the entire range of tastes might be found in cosmopolitan cities in every major country.

3. Use the Information Economy
In a global information economy, it seems that anybody can know instantaneously what's the best and the latest - or the worst. A growing number of watchdog sites pounce on bad behaviour. Websites also offer detailed data and comparisons of organisations. The US government advertised its site comparing nursing home performance on national television. The Internet contributes to a flow of information about what's available at what price in any market.

An emerging generation of Internet-friendly global consumers reinforces the spread of world standards. Young people use the Internet, know the same popular culture, like the same products and speak the same second language: English. Even in fundamentalist Muslim-led Iran, international pop stars have teenage fans. Globetrotting European and American teenagers are already exchange-rate savvy and can distinguish levels of quality.

Visionary leaders treat borrowing as the foundation for the more creative acts of learning and change. They know they must not only improve on their own pasts and work on the same levels as their peers within and outside the organisation, but that they must also venture beyond their own boundaries to find the best - and use it to become the best.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a world-recognised expert on strategy, innovation and leadership and is the author of 17 books, most recently 'Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.'

Need new ideas? Borrow them!!!
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