Shift perception as well as reality

Published 7 December 15

Change is one of the biggest management challenges facing business. As early as 1515,Machiavelli observed in his book ‘The Prince’: “Nothing is more difficult than to change the order of things”. But Luc de Brabandere, senior adviser with The Boston Group, says we can make the job much easier by learning to adjust our perceptions. 

There are two ways to solve a problem, maintains Luc. You can change reality – which can mean expending a lot of energy and requires innovation.  And you can change perception – which need creativity and a certain leap of faith. Both are important, but many find changing perceptions the harder task as not everyone is comfortable thinking differently, he says. 

“Our brain is programmed to understand the world by making patterns out of it. The brain is lazy when it fills in the gaps the eye cannot see. It simplifies what’s in front of us and this can lead us into working within boxes which include, among many other things, ideas, approaches, philosophies, tactics, theories, patterns and strategies. These boxes help us use patterns and systems to simplify, and categories to organise.” 

He says when the brain sees a pattern in one context: 

Perception 2

…it could see the same shape completely differently in another context.  


Luc says thinking in these various boxes helps make the world more manageable. It’s a thought pattern which has served mankind well when hunting prey and staying out of danger, and the same type of serial ‘decoding’ happens all the time in business. But to be more creative and to survive in a world of accelerating change and challenge, he believes we need to not just think ‘outside the box’, but learn to think in new boxes. 

“An example would be a car manufacturing business in which one of the most powerful boxes might be: “We are an automobile company”. In a room full of dairy farmers, it would probably be: “We are milk producers”. The assumption is that if you are in a certain profession, you think about things in a certain way. 

“Instead, imagine what would happen if you tried to see dairy farming in the way people in completely different professions see it – software engineers or nurses, for example. Thinking outside the box in this way could lead to less conventional and more creative thinking. 

“Would the software engineer see farming as a set of core principles plus a set of add-on ‘apps’? Would the nurse triage farm tasks based on the severity of their financial impact?” 

That’s the theory, but how do you apply this in practice? The first step to removing the barriers of boxes, says Luc, is to have a better understanding of the boxes you use in the first place.

“Once you recognise these, it’s easier to develop new ones to challege your preconceptions and increase your creativity. It’s these new models, boxes, ways of thinking that will free you to see not only what’s possible, but what you must do to survive and thrive.” 

Finally, Luc says the winners in the end are companies able to change both reality and perception. “A shift of perception alone is enough for a theorist or scientist. But, in the business world, if a change in perception is not followed by a shift in reality – otherwise known as innovation – then profitability cannot ultimately be improved….” 

As a fellow and senior advisor in the Paris office of The Boston Consulting Group, Luc de Brabandere leads strategic seminars with boards, senior executives and managers from a wide range of companies looking to develop new visions, new products and services and long-term scenarios to prepare for the future. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including ‘Thinking in New Boxes’ published earlier this year. He also teaches at the Louvain school of management and at the Ecole Centrale in Paris.