03/27/2013 05:34 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

Thinking Outside of the Box Is Vital for Success

I am known to my friends and associates as a fierce devotee of the concept of "thinking outside of the box" to solve problems both big and small, personal and business. By that, we mean come up with solutions which may not seem conventional or even logical... but work. I was reminded of this again when I met this week with a man who first set me on this course many years ago. Michael I. Levy heads a company called Business Career Design which practices this rather unique mode of operating. It was Levy who, decades ago, told me a story, perhaps apocryphal, which illustrates this. A truck has been wedged into a bridge underpass and can't get out. The police and fire departments are called and they are standing around thinking of getting a crane to raise the bridge when a twelve-year old boy rides up on his bicycle. When told what is wrong, he looks up to the fireman and says, "Why don't you let some air out of the truck's tires?" Problem solved... by thinking outside of the box.

I realized that it takes people like him, who can look at any situation from a perspective slightly askew, to solve a situation which seems impossible. I had been batting my head against a wall in a movie business situation and met with him to see if there might be another answer. After all, Michael I. Levy had been my agent some 40 years ago when I first came to California, and he set me on a successful course to becoming a mainstream producer. Levy went on to run several big companies, ending with the presidency of CBS Films when company chairman William Paley realized that this man had a winning perspective on entering the film business. After several years, Levy went out on his own as a 'business consultant,' realizing he liked being on his own rather than in the corporate world. He listened to my problem, asked a few questions, then threw out a solution which seemed so logical I should have thought of it myself... but didn't. That's thinking outside of the box. You would not be reading this article on Huffington if Arianna Huffington, some years ago, had not looked at the internet and realized tthere were no internet news magazines of substance. She initiated this report which now encompasses so many topics and languages. That was thinking outside of the box.

An attorney friend of mine told me that he had the same experience with Michael:

I was laid off as a business executive by a movie studio after working there for many years, and was at a loss as to what to do for the rest of my career. Michael listened to me and in less than 90 minutes was able to lay out a simple business design for me. I was an expert in specific entertainment industry negotiations, and he suggested that I contact all the lawyers I had dealt with over the years and suggest that I act as their consultant to give them the inside track to what studios were thinking in this area, what more they could get and what not to waste their time on. In two weeks, I had set up a new business and within three weeks I was showing a profit. I ended up making at least twice what I had earned in my previous job.

Yes, indeed, thinking outside of the box.

I know of a more complex business situation where Levy's offbeat thinking saved the day. My girlfriend knows a woman's shirt designer and manufacturer. He recently called in Levy because his company was having problems collecting accounts receivable payments. Sales were static and the owner felt he needed some new marketing strategies. As Michael tells it:

I first met with the accounting department. They had just let one accountant go to stay under the 50-employee tax limit. I then met with the marketing department, and quickly realized they were not using the social media world to their full advantage... a no-no in this digital age. Just using conventional media to reach the buying public no longer works in the computer age. A meeting with sales and I was ready for making my recommendations to the owner.

First, I suggested he bring in two part-time accountants or one full-time accountant, but as independent contractors to work solely on billing and collections, thus staying under the 50-person limit. But most important, I told him to create a series of funny internet commercials and put them on YouTube and other sites which cater to his demographic... so he could expand his target audience. Lastly, his sales department was structured into six specific regions with a sales person responsible only for their own zone.

Their pay structure was on a monthly draw basis plus commissions and a yearly bonus based on their sales figures. All the conventional things which don't work so well any more in today's world. What astonished me was discovering that they didn't share information about sales outside of their own specific territory because of the bonus structure. I proposed the CEO set up a quarterly bonus pool that would be shared among the sales force as well as the year-end bonus pool and their normal monthly bonuses. The moment he set these into motion, his outstanding account payables were cut in half and sales went up 14 percent in the first months.

Yes, it sounds complex... but that's how you think outside of the box in a deep business situation.

President Obama went to Israel last week, and some of the results of that trip show he and his staff were thinking out of the box. For example, he asked the prime minister of Israel to call the prime minister of Turkey to resolve their dispute, which had damaged relations between the countries. With one apology, things began to be set right. Someone on the president's staff had been thinking out of the box. I read in the New York Times last week that an L.A.-based musician, Herb Alpert, and his wife Lani Hall, had given millions of dollars to the Harlem School of the Arts to keep it alive and flourishing. No one in New York would have conceived that a Hollywood musician would save this local institution, but Herb had been thinking out of the box and set things right. As Michael pointed out to me in our meeting:

We see simple yet effective solutions to individual careers and corporate business problems by thinking outside of the box when it comes to analyzing the issues at hand. As I tell my clients, you can't worry about your competition, you just have to do a better job than them, and I work with that as my methodology.

He went on to note that when he works with start-up companies, the first thing he does is see how the personnel works together, analyse the manpower. "We take a different way and a different approach to all problems. Never say 'no' to the future. Rather, think of us like Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction... we are The Fixer."

If you are reading this article on Hufffington Post today, then you are thinking outside of the box. In every way, every day, in matters large and small, by taking this somewhat unique approach... and thinking outside of the box, you will find greater success and happiness in your work and life.

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