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Why Outside the Box Thinking Has Led to Inside the Box Stagnation

mocha momentsThinking outside the box (also thinking out of the box or thinking beyond the box), is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve a “nine dots” puzzle, whose solution required some lateral thinking.

This phrase has become widely used in business environments, especially by managers and supervisors when they want to encourage employees to think more creatively; to be innovative. Thinking outside the box is supposed to stretch the mind and encourage those looking for new ideas or new approaches, to look beyond the challenge and avoid the obvious.

Over the past decade, Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg who wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal called ‘Think Inside the Box’ have asked senior executives, on every continent and in every major industry, two key questions about innovation. The first: “On a scale of one to 10, how important is innovation to the success of your firm?” The second: “On a scale of one to 10, how satisfied are you with the level of innovation in your firm?”

Not surprisingly, they rate the importance of innovation very high: usually a nine or 10. None disputes that innovation is the No. 1 source of growth. Without fail, however, most senior executives give a low rating—below five—to their level of satisfaction with innovation. How could business leaders rate innovation as so important yet feel so dissatisfied with their own organizations’ performance? Because what they really want to know is how: How do you actually generate novel ideas and do so consistently, on demand?

You do this by encouraging individuals to “Grow their own box.” 

We’ve all been given a box – our brain, and our own way of thinking and processing. Over many years and with the advent of technology, we seem to rely less and less on our own ability to think. I was recently asked by a colleague, Karen Martin, bestselling author of ‘The Outstanding Organization’ whether I had a hypothesis about why deep thinking is less common these days?

The conversation got going after I had commented on a Fast Company article that she wrote called ‘The Company Chaos You Don’t Know You’re Creating’.  She talked about the type of chaos that robbed businesses of the energy needed to innovate and respond to the ever-increasing demands of the marketplace for faster, better, cheaper. She discussed the fact that many organizations resort to something called isomorphic mimicry – copying form not function.

What she said about organizations holds true on an individual level as well:  “Copying these institutions in their current form, without the history, culture, knowledge, experience, and habits that underlie them, produces tepid results at best.”

I have only just scratched the surface I’m sure but this is what I believe has happened over time regarding our thinking. We moved from the agricultural age into the industrial age. With that came leverage, systems, efficiency; the rise of unions to take care of workers who were “worked as machines” which was detrimental in many cases. Then the focus turned to knowledge and technology. I think in between there an individual’s ability to THINK got washed away because technology gives the appearance of “easy”. Not that you have to make your life difficult, but now we’ve become consumers of information. Why bother to think – I can easily find the five ways to improve profitability in my business on line, or anything else for that matter under the sun. Information abundance has supported our natural tendency to conserve energy and not let the brain (an energy hog in itself consuming 20% of our energy) sap it all. This is why we don’t think, we stereotype; we don’t conclude, we categorize; we don’t calculate, we assume. I guess what I’m saying is that there is more and more of a reliance on external support (outside the box) and less and less of a reliance on ourselves.

How do you grow your box? First off – READ! I’m surprised how many executives tell me that they don’t have TIME to read. Education doesn’t stop after you’ve received the degree or MBA.  Buy different magazines outside your areas of interest. If you usually read Vanity Fair, then try reading National Geographic.  If you like reading People, swap that for a copy of Architectural Digest. Don’t hem yourself in.

I came across this story in You, Inc. by Harry Beckwith and Christine K. Clifford about singer Paul Simon.  “Simon wrote some of our previous century’s classic songs, including an album that became the background music for an entire generation: Bookends. Millions bought it, and millions more heard its songs as the background music to the movie classic ‘The Graduate.’ Simon flourished inside his box – and then he didn’t.  Simon solved it, but not by copying or borrowing someone else’s style. He went to Africa. And there his box was influenced by what he felt and saw.  With his head stirring with these new influences, and inspired by the African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he wrote “You Can Call Me Al” and produced the magnificent album Graceland. From that he transformed himself and flourished.”

I guarantee that if we placed more emphasis on THINKING for ourselves and “growing our box” the innovative and creative ideas that we seek will surface.

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