Don’t Think Outside the Box: Find a Better Box Instead!

Benjamin Beeckmans, Director of Company-Specific Programs at SBS-EM 19/03/2019 Stratégie, Management, Innovation

Earlier this year, the Board of Manufast initiated a strategic thinking process aimed at enabling them to face the challenges brought about by changing market conditions. Solvay Brussels School (SBS) was asked to act as a facilitator.

Sheltered workshops like Brussels-based Manufast have been around for quite a while. For a long time, many of them operated on a business model that relied on profit-making activities to finance other activities that were making losses but provided meaningful employment opportunities for disabled people.

Strategic Thinking

This business model has recently been put under pressure by two trends that are currently sweeping across many industries: automation and offshoring. ‘We needed to explore new ideas and diversify,’ explains Brigitte Hamtiaux, General Manager of Manufast. ‘I had just received two interesting proposals, and I needed a solid methodology to investigate them with our Board. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a training programme in Business Development organised by our industry federation with the Solvay Brussels School. Since the tools I acquired there proved quite useful, I contacted Benjamin Beeckmans, who runs the Company Specific Programmes and briefed him on what we needed.’

But Who Is Manufast?

Manufast and SBS decided to organise a day of strategic thinking centred on defining a methodology to analyse the current situation and any upcoming opportunities. Pierre-Alain Scharff, Strategic Consultant and Lecturer at Solvay Brussels School, was to act as a facilitator and to provide the Board of Manufast with the necessary theoretical and practical tools.

‘A sound business strategy is a series of actions that allow a company to fulfil its mission, which is guided by its vision,’ details Pierre-Alain Scharff. ‘Which means that the first step to defining your strategy is to make sure there is a common understanding of both mission and vision. In other words, that everyone agrees on what Manufast actually is. This is what we first focused on: we challenged every word of the mission statement and the vision until we came to a shared understanding on what they actually meant.’

A Thorough Look At The Present

The next step was to analyse the current revenue-generating activities of Manufast. ‘We used a fairly simple but very efficient method’, Pierre-Alain Scharff continues. ‘Every activity was charted on a graph with two dimensions, product and market, rated on their potential. This exercise confirmed that most profit-making activities were indeed under threat, and that diversification was key to ensure long-term survival.’ The team then moved on to analysing the proposals that had landed on Brigitte Hamtiaux’s desk. ‘One was to take over a sheltered workshop specialising in garden maintenance. Although it was well outside the scope of Manufast’s current activities, the Board was quite enthusiastic about it. To me, this meant that the characteristics of garden maintenance did somehow fit what the team thought Manufast was about. So I suggested focusing on these characteristics, in order to identify other potential activities with the same characteristics.’ At this stage, it was becoming clear a second day of strategic thinking was needed.

‘We started brainstorming, when suddenly, it happened’ (Pierre-Alain Scharff, Strategic Consultant and Lecturer at Solvay Brussels School)

Thinking In Another Box

It was during this second day that a moment of truth took place. The Board and the facilitator were analysing potential activities, and slowly coming to the realisation that most of them were beyond the cognitive capacities of the disabled people Manufast was working with. Was that because the definition of the Manufast workers was too narrow? ‘We started brainstorming, when suddenly, it happened: someone in the room said that what Manufast was actually doing was helping people who would not be able to find a job through conventional means,’ Pierre-Alain Scharff remembers. ‘This was the moment I was waiting for. It expanded the definition in a way that opened many new activities. You see, there is a belief that thinking out of the box is crucial to finding meaningful ideas. I strongly disagree with that. A ‘box’ is a frame of reference that actually guides thinking. So what you need is not to get out of the box, but rather to find another one that allows thinking to expand, and helps new ideas emerge. At 10:30 in the morning, we had found that box and won the day.’

Work For The Next Five Years

Energised by this new insight, the Manufast Board spent the rest of the day charting the course they were going to take and laid the foundations of their strategic thinking for the coming months. For Brigitte Hamtiaux, the mission she entrusted to Solvay Brussels School was more than accomplished. ‘Thanks to Pierre-Alain, we went a lot further than we hoped. We have found a new framework that opens up a lot of opportunities and will allow us to grow. We have already identified four strategic priorities we want to investigate further. In other words, we have laid down the ground for our strategy for the next five years.’

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