What can we apply in business from the things that happen around us every day? Are there important lessons we can use as metaphors for our own behaviour? We’re constantly exposed to examples that we can copy, avoid or save, to use now or at some point in the future.

Often, we’re very aware of what’s going on in our own market. But what about looking beyond areas of familiarity and adopting a great example of something that works well elsewhere? Then customising it for use in our own situation. When you’re looking for illustrations of best practice or innovation it pays to cast the net beyond the familiar.

A few years ago I was sitting in a meeting (most meetings don’t achieve much but that’s for another day) which was being led by a new director. I didn’t know him well at that point. But it turned out he was a highly accomplished manager who knew how to engage with people.

You know when meetings wander off the point? Of course you do, you’ve been in those a thousand times. People having a one to one conversation with a colleague that has little relevance to anyone else. In those situations you look to whoever’s leading the meeting to get it back on track.

Well the new director had taken a lesson from a completely different environment and applied it to his team meetings. In fact, it drove his entire approach to management. It’s a simple tool about goals and priorities. You can apply it from now on and I guarantee an instant improvement in productivity.

His name was Ian and he’d been on a round the world yacht race. It was one of those deals where they take amateurs and a limited professional crew. He’d rarely sailed but wanted a challenge to escape his comfort zone. On his first day at sea the skipper held a meeting with the crew. He let the conversation meander and the meeting became typical of those I’ve already described.

He then said these words.

“Why are we here? We’re here because we’re trying to win a race. So we only discuss things around this table that make the boat go faster. Nothing else matters”.

Those simple words were to have a profound effect on the behaviour of the crew. They absolutely reminded everyone why they were on the boat. And what was expected at the daily meeting. If what you’re about to say doesn’t directly contribute to winning, don’t say it.

Those four sentences also said much about the Skipper. They demonstrated leadership at a very early stage. From then on everyone knew that his instructions would be clear and unambiguous. That instilled confidence in an amateur crew, looking for reassurance.

Imagine in your own company if you restricted the agenda and talk to the key drivers of your business. No tangential waffle. Just a focussed discussion about the things that really mattered. Then agreeing clear actions and following them through. “In our meetings we only discuss what we need to do to grow market share, nothing else”.

Having a stated single aim helps everyone focus on what needs to be done. It works because it ensures people think more clearly about what they’re about to say and whether their words qualify. It keeps the meeting on track and prevents side issues taking up valuable time.

It’s a good example of taking something completely unrelated, like a boat race, and applying it in a business situation. It’s such a very simple and obvious thing to do.

Looking outside the familiar for a solution can be highly productive and provide a useful exercise for executives. If you’ve a problem that needs solving find the answer by identifying someone who’s already done it. List the key items that you believe are holding the company back and make a team member provide potential answers. But only from outside your current market.

I guarantee they’ll enjoy the challenge and who knows you might even make your own “boat” go faster!

By David Mansfield, founder of The Drive Partnership and visiting professor at Cass Business School