Breaking Out of the Idea Rut

by Ken Robertson

Leaders are always working on maintaining an edge. What’s next? What’s around the corner? Where is the business going, and how do I get there? Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” I love this quote because it reminds me that if we are not careful, we can get stuck in the trap of knowing (for sure) too much.

One way to be mindful of not falling into repetitive or narrow habits of thinking is to make a deliberate attempt to listen to people who are way outside your industry or area of expertise. But it’s easier said than done.

As I think about my last month of meetings and interactions with different people, I find in so many cases the communication is all basically focused on the same things — the same news channels, the same industry conferences and industry rags, the same newspapers, the same experts, the same reports and so on — a circular reference.

Breaking Out of the Idea Rut idea rut01 300x300So what’s the point, anyway? Why not just stay focused on what you know, what you’re good at and the comfortable familiarities of your profession? I believe the answer comes from your ability to use what you learn to effect change, which begs the question: What kind of change are you hoping to bring about in your professional or personal life?

The conventional wisdom goes that if you are looking for incremental change (small increments of change over the short term), then good management is your best strategy. Good management would include things like planning and budgeting, structure, staffing, delegation, providing good policies and procedures and then monitoring implementation.

Alternatively, if your goal is to achieve transformational change (big improvements in a short period of time), then you need a different approach more akin to good leadership. Leadership-oriented change would include things like developing a vision for the future, often the distant future, and strategies for getting there. It might include communication that would align people and foster collaboration. And it might include motivating and inspiring those responsible for carrying out the envisioned change.

So what are some ideas that could take you outside (hopefully way outside) your normal circle of influence and provide a truly unique perspective? I’ve listed my top five ways to break out of the “idea rut.” Admittedly, some are more complex than others, and some are just simple and fun — but they all work.

  • Magazines – Purchase three magazines way outside your area of expertise. For me they might be something like Fast Company, Time, a travel magazine or something very focused. I then like to flip through an entire magazine in no more than 30 minutes or so, only stopping to read the items that somehow spark some new creative interest.


  • Speakers – Check your local colleges, community centers, churches and private schools for their speaker series. These organizations often have numerous speakers throughout the year and use the draw of these speakers to spread awareness about their organizations. Attending these events is a great way to experience something totally abstract or dramatically different from what you would normally be exposed to where you might glean insight into some important developing trend or thought process.


  • Take a Class – This one may require a larger commitment of time, but this could be an exceptional way to develop a unique perspective and be exposed to an entirely different range of people than you normally associate with.


  • Make the Oddball Choice – If you do end up at an industry conference of some sort and you have some options, you might try deliberately avoiding the session or discussion you normally gravitate to because it’s the “right choice.” Instead, try something totally out of left field. Honestly, I think you could apply this to a lot of areas in life. When’s the last time you drove home a new way? It seems simple, but anything you can do to break out of the trance that we all find ourselves in during our normal daily activities has great potential to create new ideas.


  • Visit Somewhere New: Few things in life are as enjoyable and mind clearing as the feeling you get when you return from spending time in a place that is totally new. Really immersing yourself in a new place, and for me, not filling every minute with activities result in a refreshing experience. Being OK with being bored and just letting the day unfold in an unplanned and natural way deliver great residual benefits to your psyche.

Without question, through these and other attempts to deliberately break out of the normal pattern, we can generate new ideas and approaches to challenge ourselves way beyond the well-worn path. This all reminds me of another quote I love a lot by Albert Einstein: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

-Happy Exploring!


Ken Robertson is the KBS Regional President for the Central U.S.
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