Why Thinking ‘Outside the Box’ Is Dead Wrong

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

Thinking “outside the box” is a cliché that has been around since the early ’70s. It’s so overused in business that it actually has become quite meaningless. The box implies thinking that is rigid, constrained, and unimaginative. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, management consultants loved to pull out a test called the nine dots puzzle.

The goal is to link all nine dots using only four straight lines or fewer without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once. The trick is that it can only be done when you take the line outside the box.

Thinking outside the box can be a dangerous trap. The problems come when we want to innovate just for the sake of innovation. A lot of people want to do the new thing; few want to do the right thing. If you want to be the best at what you do, then make sure everything is in order inside the box before you venture outside.

So before you wander along to the next project, idea, or menu, let’s make sure you have everything in order on the inside.

An 'Inside the Box' Checklist

The nine dots puzzle | Credit: modernindenver.com

The nine dots puzzle | Credit: modernindenver.com

Here’s a checklist of things you should have in order before taking the trip “outside the box:”

  • Do you have your current menu costs updated within the last month? That includes having a written recipe for everything you make in the kitchen. Yes, that goes for all the culinary professionals who like to create new dishes yet fail to cost them out to see if they are profitable. Coming up with new innovative items to wow your guests is fun. Coming up with new innovative items that wow the guests and make a profit, that is the challenge.
  • Have you run a menu analysis in the last three months? Do you know the stars, workhorses, puzzles, and dogs on your menu? What is your action plan for those items that don’t make a profit and customers are not buying?
  • Have you done a market analysis of restaurants within a mile of your location in the last three months? You might be shocked to know a few new restaurants opened up around you and you have not even noticed.
  • If you updated your menu recently in the restaurant, have you also updated those changes on the Internet — websites like Yelp, Trip Advisor, Google Places? Nothing starts off a bad guest experience quite like not seeing updated menus on their favorite mobile platform.
  • Have you held a training class with your team within the last month? Training on a consistent basis is what separates mediocre restaurants from outstanding ones. Think of it like going to the gym. You don’t go to the gym for one week and think, “Well that’s it, I guess I’m in shape now. I don’t need to come back.” It’s sad that many operators approach their training program with that same mindset.
  • Have you cleaned up and organized that back storeroom? You know the one. That place in your restaurant that becomes a catchall for anything and everything you’re not currently using. What did you say? You think sizzling fajita plates are going to be popular again? Good luck.
  • Have you used social media for the purpose of engaging with your guests and not just talking about yourself? Here’s the not-so-subtle secret about social media: It’s about being social. The 80:20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principal) is a good one to follow. Eighty percent of your social media posts and activities should be directed about your guests. Twenty percent should be about your restaurant. There many unwritten rules for conduct on social media. Reciprocity is the King.
  • Are you using other social media platforms besides Facebook? Yes, it’s hard to believe that there are other venues out there for staying in touch with customers. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Periscope, Waze, LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr, Zomato, Foursquare, Snapchat, and the new kid on the block, Anchor (this one lets you create “waves” or voice files that go out like tweets on Twitter). It’s a big, crazy, Internet-connected world out there and if you’re not in the game, your restaurant will be sitting on the sidelines watching as the competition slowly takes your market away from you.
  • Do you have an active recruiting plan for new staff? Please do not say that you only advertise for help when you have a job opening. Have you heard that there is a war for talent going on? If you are only advertising when you need someone, your chances of finding top talent are pretty slim. Hiring staff can be a passive or an active process. You can sit back and wait, or you can use tools to actively search for applicants in your market. Just remember that in today’s economy, it is definitely an “employee market.” There are a lot of restaurants trying to attract an ever shrinking labor pool. If you want to attract top talent, you have to make sure your restaurant is the employer of choice.

Now, if you have all of these items in order within your box (aka your restaurant), then congratulations. You are one of the few. 

Thinking outside the box is easy. It’s fun to break away from the same routine and focus on something new and shiny. The problem is that thinking outside the box distracts you from where your real focus should be. Think inside the box. Make sure your brand, culture, decor, service, menu, food, beverage, restrooms, staff, and your guest are all taken care of first. 

How we do anything, is how we do everything. The devil is in the details. Get used to it.