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Leadership Lessons – Five Ways to Build a Box

Despite the classic status of the quote “Think outside the Box”, it contains a subtle flaw. As a description of what the creative process is all about, it’s a brilliant distillation of the basic concept “think differently.” However, as a recipe for being creative, this famous quote is a dismal failure. A standard response from someone hearing it for the first time is… There’s a box? What box?

As an example of this response in action, consider the following little exercise. Separate your group into teams of 2-3 people and hand each team a new deck of playing cards. Instruct them to build on the table in front of them the tallest tower possible in five minutes. During this time they may not ask you any questions.

A typical team will manage to create a tower one card high, an extraordinary team might deliver a tower three cards high, and every now and then a genius team will emerge. They’ll build a tower 10-15 cards high. They’ll do it by forgetting that they’re playing with cards and instead, realize they’re playing with stiff pieces of construction paper, perfect for bending, tearing and mutilating into perfect paper building blocks.

Those that don’t escape from the constrictions imposed by the label of “playing cards” fall into two distinct categories; those that never even think of bending or tearing the cards and those that do think of this, but hold back because “you don’t bend or tear playing cards”. The latter group is at least aware that they’re constrained in a “box” defined by the rules for handling playing cards. The former group is oblivious to the box around them. A box that is, for the most part, self-imposed.

The advice “think outside the box” requires that we’re aware of the boxes surrounding us. A good step in that direction is recognizing that many of those boxes are self-imposed and that we can identify the behaviors that erect some of those boxes. Here are a few common self-constraining thought processes.

We don’t listen to our own wisdom.

As a consultant the most common problem presented to me for a solution is best summed up in the following client statement, “Peter, it hurts when we do this…” When faced with that problem statement it’s tempting to respond with the punch line from the child’s “Dr. Dr.” joke… “Then stop doing it!”

The fact is that we know how to solve many of the problems that face us. All we need do is accept that our existing behavior is not resulting in the desired outcome, and there we should find another course of action. The box is endlessly repeating an action we know doesn’t work.

We don’t listen to the wisdom of outsiders.

The “not invented here!” syndrome is endemic. The irony is once again that we recognize we’re unable to get out of our rut of thinking, yet we resist any injection of an external idea. The box in this instance is a double box. At the first level, the box is a lack of an internal solution. On the second level, the box is the notion that to protect our ego we must reject external suggestions.

Only those from out of town possess wisdom.

This is the exact opposite of the one above. There’s a strongly held belief that unless you’re from far away you can’t possibly have a solution to a local problem. It’s as if geographical distance bestows wisdom on the person giving advice.

Now I don’t want to totally eradicate this notion as I make my living being the “out of town expert”, but the reality is that the person sitting in the cubicle next to you is just as likely to have a solution to your problem as the jetlagged talent from seven time zones east of you. Frequent flyer miles do not boost IQ.

The simple isn’t complex enough.

We demand that our solutions are complicated and costly. If the problem has posed great difficulty in the past, then the solution cannot be simple. The reason for this is itself simple enough. If the solution is simple, then we must be at fault for not discovering it ourselves. We insist that solutions to our persistent problems be complicated and costly to protect our egos.

Here’s a simple example from the allegedly complicated world of organizational ethics.

If you’re willing to have your actions published on the front page of the Globe and Mail, then your actions are likely ethical.

Now, that’s not a perfect solution to most ethical problems, but it solves the vast majority of ethical issues.

Repetition devalues Truth.

This one is closely related to “simple isn’t complicated enough”. The great truths, the classical answers are often considered clichés, “Do unto others, as you’d have them do unto you”, “To thine own self be true”, “Look before you leap”, “Think globally, and act locally”. These are all simple, commonly repeated phrases. Just because they’re common doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, degrade the wisdom they contain.

All of the above thought traps restrict our problem-solving ability. By needlessly constraining how we see the world, they limit our ability to think our way towards solutions. The irony is that these aren’t imposed on us. There’s no one to blame for ourselves, and that brings to mind a sixth box building strategy – we’re seldom ready to consider that we’re the source of our biggest, most intractable problems.

© 2015 Peter de Jager – Reprinted with Permission.

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