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Thinking Outside Your Industry's Box

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The reason many companies fail to innovate is that they hire people who are established within their field, and thus lack the fresh perspective needed to come up with a game-changing idea. That, more or less, is the thesis presented by a couple of innovation experts in a BusinessWeek article last week.

On its face, the idea is a reasonably compelling one: Companies such as Netflix, Apple and Ebay all changed their respective fields by entering the fray as unknown quantities with little or no industry background before coming to dominate them. It's a phenomenon the authors of the piece dub "beginner's luck," which is accurate in the sense that companies with entrenched business models failed to realize or act on the threat to them. But it misses the point that the "beginners" took full advantage of technological and demographic shifts to deliver convenient, well thought-out products that enhance the lives of their customers—and there's precious little that’s "lucky" about that.

Regardless of the luck factor, there are some takeaways from the piece that should apply to all execs—and especially those who are focused on not becoming the next entrenched model knocked off its perch by a hot young upstart. And most of those takeaways relate to hiring:

Do: Consider candidates from outside your own industry. Fresh perspective is hard to come by if you restrict your search to those with have put in X amount of time in the industry already.

Do: Think in terms of skill-sets, rather than knowledge. If you're looking for the next big idea, single out candidates with an entrepreneurial bent—regardless of their previous fields—rather than those with a history of fitting in within your competitors.

Do: Encourage existing employees to check out developments in other industries. Whether that's by reading trade publications or attending conferences that deal with similar functional areas but in different industrial fields, it’s important that employees keep an eye on the bigger picture as well.

Do: Seek out fresh perspective wherever possible. Ask your customers. Or consultants. Or, as the authors of the BusinessWeek piece suggest, your newest hires. Anyone, in short, who might have an opinion or perspective that you haven't already heard a dozen times from the same people in your regular meetings.

The bottom line: If you restrict your perspective to those who know your industry and its shortcomings and limitations, you're leaving your company open to the risk of missing the great idea that will bypass them.
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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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