The benefits of being the outsider

When “I don’t belong here” can work in your favour. 

John (my business partner) and I recently attended the TFF Summit in Zurich Switzerland. It was an amazing experience that celebrates the climax of the Thought for Food Challenge — a business concept competition that engages more than 5,000 university students from 100+ countries in developing ideas that tackle food and nutrition security. The 400 or so participants were made up of the members of the 10 finalist teams as well as a collection of experts representing every imaginable segment of the Food and Agriculture industry, and us.

Aside from having lived on or near farms for most of my childhood and having engaged with food at least three times a day for as long as I can remember, I don’t profess to being any kind of expert in either area. We were there on the invitation of TFF’s founder and CEO as an objective set of eyes and ears, absorbing the experience and looking for untapped opportunities. It was an incredibly valuable experience and it got me thinking about how different it felt being the outsider at an industry event and the advantages that it afforded us.

Award winning author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan suggests three key advantages to being an outsider: You have no political debts to pay; It’s easier to be objective; and, You have a fresh perspective on old problems. This seems like the perfect framework by which to consider our recent experience.

The fact that there were no political debts to pay was subtle but still evident. The TFF Summit is an experience that fully embraces an open innovation mindset. Politics have little place in open innovation. That said, highly competitive industries such as Food and Agriculture are rife with political agendas and being a neutral mind in such an environment is clearly advantageous. Coming from outside the industry and not having a vested interest in the progression of any one person, company or business concept, meant that we could speak openly and honestly about what we experienced and thought. Such openness is music to the ears of those entrenched in such industries who are constantly, consciously or subconsciously, checking themselves to ensure no toes are trodden on. Having no agenda means that other people feel more at ease and are able to focus on what you are actually saying, and not what they think you’re trying to say.

When situations are complex and a lot is at stake, it often helps to have an objective perspective. The current state of Food and Agriculture is one such situation. It is a heavily regulated industry that is dominated by a handful of multinational incumbents. It is responsible for a product that we not only need but that we actually ingest. It is an industry that has not experienced significant change since it was mechanised during the industrial revolution but that knows it needs to change. These factors and many more tend to polarise an audience. You’re either for GMOs or you’re against them. You either think that large organisations are the only ones that have the clout and resources to create real change, or you think they are more of a destructive force. When you’re new to the argument you have the ability, and the permission, to slide up and down each scale and form your own opinion. You’re not backing one side on principle, but are able to listen to both sides. This might also be the reason why external consultants are better able to create change in large organisations, as they are seen as objective experts who are not pushing a hidden agenda.

Additionally, having a fresh perspective on old problems is incredibly advantageous. You’re not so tied up in “that’s just the way things are” and can therefore focus your energy on the way that things could be. The theme for the TFF Summit is ‘Uprooting Assumptions’. Core to their thinking is the understanding that today’s problems won’t necessarily be solved with yesterday’s solutions. What is needed are fresh perspectives from people who are not too entrenched, biased or proud to make suggestions that might even seem naive or stupid to those within the industry. While the TFF Summit was all about challenging assumptions to uncover new opportunities, anyone not having to uproot those assumptions in the first place has an obvious advantage.

As well as the three benefits offered by Margaret Heffernan, I’d like to propose three more benefits to being the outsider, namely social liberties, perpetual exoticism and neural vacations.

Avoidance of political debts refers to the interpersonal relationships and obligations that build up over time when someone spends too long in a particular industry or organisation. Social liberties, on the other hand, refers to the fact that the outsider is not beholden to all of the same rules that determine acceptable behaviour of the insider group, or at least the rules are more flexible. Of course participating in a group in which you don’t belong requires empathy and effort to be accepted. However, as an outsider you are not necessarily expected to behave by all of the same rules that govern those ‘who should know better’. Stronger still, your questioning of the way things are or simply behaving differently because you didn’t know any different can provide valuable insights to those on the inside who it seems are no longer capable of thinking differently.

Secondly, when you’re the outsider, you’re different. You’re exotic. Most of us are curious creatures. Assuming basic needs are met that curiosity draws us to those things (and people) that are not like us. When we find ourselves in places where we don’t belong, we often stand out. In some social contexts, this is not desirable but in the case of corporate events when you are looking for interesting conversations that might lead to equally interesting opportunities, it pays to be the one who other people are drawn to. Making a habit of being the outsider perpetuates this effect.

My final point may seem trivial but I believe it is equally important. As well as having different perspectives on old problems, you also bring completely new subjects to the table. You are free from the expectation of “we are at an x industry event so we must talk about x”. Because you’re not expected to have knowledge of the subject matter at hand, you are free to speak about whatever it is that interests you and that is quite likely to be something different than the reason that brought all of the other attendees to that particular event. In doing so, you’re offering a neural vacation to the people you speak to, allowing them to relax their minds and think of something else for a moment.

From the absence of political debts to the ease in which you can be objective and offer fresh perspectives, and from the elimination of social rules to staying exotic and offering a mental break to those you meet, being the outsider can have significant benefits for anyone looking to discover new potential opportunities. For most people this is simply left to chance. What we would like to suggest is that with a little effort it can be planned for and maintained.

Rather than automatically signing up to the same conferences or going to the same events, make an effort to attend at least one personal and one professional experience each year that feels in some way unfamiliar to you. Pay attention to what’s different and go out of your way to engage in conversation with people.

Being an outsider is not always easy. It’s a skill that gets easier (and more fun) with practice. Our experience is that the rewards, although difficult to predict in advance, are well worth the effort. It is a skill that is also becoming increasingly valuable, particularly as the world becomes more complex, transparent and interconnected and where novel thinking and fresh solutions are increasingly sought after.

I’m reminded of an anecdote that I once heard about Bill Clinton. Apparently he had a habit of visiting news stands at airports and selecting magazines on subjects he knew nothing about. His reasoning was that, either he’d discover a new topic that would provide him with ideas and inspiration and possibly entertainment, or he’d decide that he had absolutely no interest in the topic and could put it out of his mind.

Suggestions:

Stepping outside of your bubble into another can be challenging and even downright frightening. Here are some tips that might help you to take that first step. If you have other ideas, we’d love to hear them, and of course we’d love to hear about your experiences if you try any of these (or other) ideas.

  • Whether the Bill Clinton anecdote is true or not, it’s an interesting idea. Next time you’re taking a long flight, purchase a magazine on a topic you know nothing about and see what you learn or discover.
  • Instead of going to the same conference every year, mix it up a little and choose to attend an event that sounds very interesting but is not obviously related to the work that you do.
  • Ask a friend or colleague who comes from a very different culture or background to recommend an exhibition or performance or restaurant that you’d otherwise never consider visiting.

And remember, when you find yourself in a situation where you’re the outsider, don’t try overly hard to fit in. It’s good to show interest in the subject matter of the event but remember that what you have to offer is probably equally interesting to those you meet.