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Exactly what is 'Thinking Outside the Box'?

By Ed Bernacki |

A reason I often hear for the need for innovation training is to get "our team to think outside the box."

This may come from the person at the top who feels that the quality of solutions or ideas is not great. This stems from frustration. It also comes from people working in teams who feel that the contribution of others is not helping find new and original solutions to the challenges they face.

If you have ever been in this situation, you will know how hard it is to deal with. Perhaps it is best to start with what this term actually means.

I don't know of an official definition for "out of the box" thinking, but here is my perspective starting with "in the box" thinking.

Inside The Box
Thinking inside the box means accepting the status quo. For example, Charles H. Duell, Director of the US Patent Office, said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." That was in 1899: clearly he was in the box!

In-the-box thinkers find it difficult to recognize the quality of an idea. An idea is an idea. A solution is a solution. In fact, they can be quite pigheaded when it comes to valuing an idea. They rarely invest time to turn a mediocre solution into a great solution.

More importantly, in-the-box thinkers are skillful at killing ideas. They are masters of the creativity killer attitude such as "that'll never work" or "it's too risky." The best in-the-box thinkers are unaware that they drain the enthusiasm and passion of innovative thinkers while they kill their innovative ideas.

They also believe that every problem needs only one solution; therefore, finding more than one possible solution is a waste of time. They often say, "There is no time for creative solutions. We just need THE solution."

Even great creative people can become in-the-box thinkers when they stop trying. Apathy and indifference can turn an innovator into an in-the-box thinker.

In only one case is in-the-box thinking necessary. This comes from a cartoon: a man talks to his cat and points to the kitty litter box. He says, "Never ever think outside the box!"

Outside the Box
Thinking outside the box requires different attributes that include:

  • Willingness to take new perspectives to day-to-day work.
  • Openness to do different things and to do things differently.
  • Focusing on the value of finding new ideas and acting on them.
  • Striving to create value in new ways.
  • Listening to others.
  • Supporting and respecting others when they come up with new ideas.

Out-of-the box thinking requires an openness to new ways of seeing the world and a willingness to explore. Out-of-the box thinkers know that new ideas need nurturing and support. They also know that having an idea is good but acting on it is more important. Results are what count.

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