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Thinking Outside the Box

| James Riley |

Thinking Outside the Box

Thinking Outside of the Box is a phrase often used but rarely done. It can be easy for us to say we want to or are thinking outside of the box but the very fact that we are still thinking about the box indicates that we are still constrained by that box. The idea, however, remains important as the practice of out of the box thinking is critical to the health and growth of individuals and organizations. If we don’t figure out how to master thinking outside of the box, how can we have breakthrough innovations and ideas?

Boxes are critical to life. Whether they take the form of morals, laws, guidelines, vows, a company’s Mission, Vision and Values or whatever else, they give us definition and boundaries. I tend to think of boxes as gravity in that they keep your feet on the ground and give you a sense of reality. In order to give people freedom to act and perform, we have to provide them boxes (definition and boundaries) for them to work within.

So, have I confused you yet? On one hand, we want to think outside of the box. On the other hand, boxes are critical. When, if ever, should we think outside of the box and when should we stay within it? I believe that outside of the box thinking is great for imagining, inventing and innovating but, at some point, that thinking needs to be brought into some form of construct to be applied. The danger is if, the entire time we are trying to think outside of the box, we are worried about how that idea will be applied…this constrains our ability to truly innovate. Additionally, applying gravity to an idea too soon in its infancy can, often, crush it much in the same way as putting a full-sized backpack on an infant would.

Let me give you an example. Years ago, my family owned a small farm where we had some goats, ducks and other farm-type animals. Our oldest daughter (she was probably about 9 at the time) came to me with a desire to start a business raising and selling miniature goats. I wanted to support her idea so, in typical entrepreneurial fashion, I asked her to build a budget showing her expected expenses and revenue to see if this was a viable business venture. When she came back with the budget, it didn’t balance and she was about to give up. The conversation went something like this:

Daughter: Dad, I just can’t get the budget to work so I just need to give up on this idea.

Me: Let’s look at your budget and see if there is anything we can trim.

Daughter: Here it is. I am negative by about the same amount as I need to feed the animals but, if I don’t feed them, they’d starve and that wouldn’t work.

Me: What if we stole the food?

Daughter: WHAT? We can’t steal food, that would be illegal and wrong!

Me: Okay, what if we did something LIKE stealing the food but it was legal and ethical?

Daughter: Huh, what are you talking about?

Me: You know the neighbors who have hay to feed their animals? It’s constantly making a mess in their barn and they have to constantly clean it up. What if you offered to clean it up for them in exchange for keeping something like 50% of it?

Daughter: …that…just…might…work…

At no time did I actually want to steal feed from people but, for a period of time, we needed to suspend reality so we could imagine possibilities. When we did this, we were able to imagine things that would normally seem absurd. As the gravity of the “box” (ie. Our morals) started to draw us back to earth, we were able to intersect with a possibility that we wouldn’t have been likely to imagine had we sat inside the box, trying to come up with ideas.

What might happen in your life and business if, for a period of time, you experienced weightlessness and suspended the “gravity” of the boxes in your life and business to think about things that are likely to be absurd? What possibilities might you intersect as the gravity of your boxes draws you back to earth? What could that mean in your life and in your business?