Brilliant and bold discoveries make the front page. Earlier this month the discovery of the Higgs boson, a new fundamental particle, made headlines around the world. The contrasting good news for leading companies is that top and bottom line excitement comes from applying lots of modestly creative ideas. These incremental innovations are much faster and easier to apply and provide better and dramatically better-than- average solutions to problems across all business areas.
Many companies that are good places to work still have difficulty getting these modestly creative ideas because employee thinking stays place “inside the box”. We often hear “outside the box” and “outside the square” from managers looking for better-quality solutions and brighter ideas and from team leaders who find themselves stymied by cheerful team comments.
“Outside the square” is associated with a solution to the nine-dot puzzle. The puzzle perfectly illustrates the difference between inside and outside box ways of seeing and thinking.
“Inside the box” means seeing hearing and rapidly making sense of what you expect to see and hear. It automatically supports and endorses the status quo, or the way things are. This is wonderfully convenient for speeding through everyday work. But in the search for new solutions in-the-box thinking kills not only ideas, but the endearingly silly notions that serve as triggers leading to good ideas.
The best in-the-box thinkers routinely keep us in safe orthodoxy and dissipate the enthusiasm and passion of the creatively inclined. Worn down by the influence of the in-the-boxers, creative people give in and give up. Subtle ridicule, apathy and indifference transport creative types into inside-the-box thinkers.
Two out-of-the-box stories
When agricultural engineer George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip with his dogs in the alps with burrs sticking to his clothing, he didn’t see burrs that need to be plucked off, but rather two things that were fastening themselves together. His subsequent study of the ways burrs fastened together led him to create Velcro.
Across the Atlantic in the US, home garden perfectionist George Ballas was challenged by the problem of manicuring his lawn without hurting the 200 trees inhabiting it. His invention of a weed trimmer that could be used around trees without damaging their bark was based on using spinning Nylon – an idea that came to him after watching spinning Nylon bristles clean his car at the local car wash.
Both of these out-of-the-box thinking excursions took place outside the workplace.
One was the result of that mercurial quality – curiosity – the other triggered by a pressing and persistent problem. Other factors favouring outbox thinking including a willingness to deliberately take on new perspectives (for example, the outside-in “customer” perspective versus the inside-out “business/operations” perspective) and openness to new ideas and things. Some of us are more curious and open than others. But we all tend to open up when work environments let us and when leaders keep questions or words* that trigger creative effort on standby in their top paddock.
Jumping out of the box is more difficult than jumping back into the box because we have more confidence that we will land somewhere safe on the in-jump.
The other aspect of box-jumping involves thinking speeds. Fast and efficient is regarded positively, although it may not equate to effective decision-making. Thinking outside the square box can be fast, furious, funny and enjoyable.
However, when solving difficult and complex problems, and selecting a great option from several, slow thinking is particularly important. Some slow thinking takes place naturally when we are asleep (a nice externality for business). At other times repeated rounds of debating, reworking and reshaping concepts and ideas will be needed.
Thanks to creative Canadian import Ed Bernacki we have identified one situation were in-the-box thinking is necessary. It’s illustrated by the cartoon where a man talking to his cat, points to the kitty litter box and says, “Never ever think outside the box!”
*Here are some trigger words. Add one or more of them after phrases such as these: “Can we…” “How can we …” “What if we… “ or “Let’s…”