Business beyond the box:
Applying your mind for breakthrough results

Reviewed by: 
John O’Keeffe
Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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I first read Business Beyond the Box after it was recommended to me by a CEO friend of mine who was so inspired by the book that he completely revamped his company’s business strategy afterwards. After a recommendation like this, how could I not read it?

I believe the impact of the book lies in the fact that John O’Keeffe has managed to pull together a wealth of management thinking and personal anecdotes into a very accessible and easy-to-read book.

Central to the book is O’Keeffe’s belief that faster rates of change in the business environment mean we need to apply ‘out of the box’ thinking to enable us to adapt to the changes taking place around us and to develop a competitive edge for the future. He quotes strategy guru Gary Hamel who warns that ‘corporations around the world are reaching the limits of incrementalism. Pursuing incremental improvements, while rivals reinvent the industry, is like fiddling while Rome burns’.

What he suggests is required is an ability to create a flow of ideas that will bring about step-changes in results. This obviously demands a lot of creative thinking which, as O’Keeffe observes, has typically been driven out of us by traditions of the academic system and the pressures of business. The only thinking strategy most of us know is logical analysis and the only alternative strategy we know is a vague form of brainstorming which rarely delivers. What we need is what O’Keeffe calls ‘triangular thinking’.

He encourages us to apply our minds to eight thinking strategies that are based on his concept of triangular thinking. Linear or vertical thinking was always close to tunnel thinking, he concludes. Lateral thinking (originally devised by Edward de Bono) brought a breadth of thought but often, suggests O’Keeffe, produces ideas too impractical for business. Triangular thinking on the other hand claims to get around these limitations by focusing directly on bottom-line business results. It involves doing three things together: picturing a step-change, building know-how, and using creative thinking - all focused on achieving real-world results.

O’Keeffe claims that his techniques are effective because:

They are ‘Monday morning do-able’: The book provides many simple examples, tips and exercises to illustrate his ideas. Not all of it has to be applied from day one and O’Keeffe suggests that even if you only applied a small proportion of his ideas that you could still dramatically change your results.

They are proven in practice: At the time of writing the book O’Keeffe was a Group Vice President for Procter & Gamble with wide international experience in marketing and general management. His book is the result, he tells us, of several years ‘practising what I preach and preaching what I practise’.

They are directed towards achieving results: The book focuses each individual’s thinking and energies directly on how to get step-change results, in contrast to what O’Keeffe sees as ‘indirect or interim activities’ like team-building or empowerment. The latter are helpful, he claims, but essentially not wholly focussed on achieving step-change results. A sustained focus on breakthrough results will have a much bigger impact - like perhaps doubling profit and sales, or halving cost and time to market.

I can’t say that I agree with all of O’Keeffe’s ideas and I find his recommendations on sustaining high energy levels and achieving crisis-like performance without the crisis somewhat unrealistic.

My biggest concern with the book is that, without overtly mentioning it, it focuses entirely on the individual and affords no recognition to the power of teams, collective thinking or to the ability of leaders to achieve extraordinary results through others.

However, that aside, it is a very accessible book that contains plenty of useful material to help managers think more ambitiously and effectively.

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