Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thinking Out of the Box – Or Is It?


A Cliché By Any Other Name


I have worked with a number of people recently who are extolling the virtues of “out of the box” thinking.

First, they amazed me with how many clichés they could string together in one sentence.  Think of something similar to the following sentences and you will know what I mean. 

“There’s no time like the present to seize the bull by the horns so we might as well kill two birds with one stone while we’re at it.  Everyone knows that it’s the early bird that gets the worm so let’s get started – after all, two heads are better than one and the right time to begin is now”.

After you have applied your cliché filter, you realize they didn’t say anything at all.

One of the clichés that doesn’t say much is “thinking out of the box”. 

Recently, I have observed a number of projects where people thought “out of the box” and ended up creating another box that looks the same as the old one except for a minor variation here and there.  Maybe the new box is a different color or is made of a new material.

However, because the desire was to create a different box but the focus was on the old box and how it was created (so that they could avoid recreating it, of course), they ended up creating something that looked slightly different but still had all the primary limitations of the box they were trying to correct in the first place.

I wonder if thinking outside the box provides some comfort to these people, some attachment to that which they know instead of venturing into previously unchartered territory (at least for them).

After all, if you think outside the box but get uncomfortable, you can always climb back inside the old box.  You will be safe there for a while, until the original reasons why the box is insufficient force you to climb out of it again.  For those people, they become trapped in a frustrating, never-ending cycle in their personal or professional life when this happens. 

If you decide, however, that you want to create something totally new, then you may not always have something to retreat to.

You are totally committed.

As I like to say, you are either all in it or not in it at all.

So the next time you are faced with a significant challenge, instead of saying “let’s use out of the box thinking” trying asking yourself this instead.

Forget about what you have.  If you wanted any semblance of it, you wouldn’t be having a conversation to replace it.

Think about what you want.  Don’t think about what current reality looks like because that will take you back to creating a variation of what you have.  This may be insufficient or cause you  to inherit the very thing you are trying to get rid of.

Then think about how you want to get where you want to get to.  Again, don’t focus on how you created that which you are replacing because you will again recreate the very processes that led you down the previous path.

Remember Gerald Weinberg’s wonderful bread recipe rule.

If you use the same ingredients, the same baker and the same recipe, you will always produce the same bread.

Think about this in terms of what you are replacing:

The baker – you or others that baked the previous “loaf”, with your strengths and weaknesses.

The ingredients – the ideas, thoughts and other components that formed the building blocks for the previous “loaf”.

The recipe – the processes by which the previous “loaf” was created.

So, if you want to make something that looks like what you are trying to replace, bring the same people, ideas and processes together and keep thinking about the old solution. 

However, if you really want to create something NEW,  bring in fresh players with different perspectives and different creative ways to create..

After all, you are trying to CREATE something new, aren’t you?

Whether in business, at home, in politics, in your community, in your church in your volunteer organization (or anywhere else), to create something new, you must be truly creative.

Otherwise, you are just hoping for a different result. 

In that case, when you are consumed by “out of the box” thinking, I can’t tell if you are trying to convince me or yourself that utilizing the same ingredients of the past will create something new.

Think about this.

You have just mixed bananas, eggs, chopped nuts and other ingredients and you are hoping it produces a pineapple upside down cake.  It didn’t the last time but because you don’t like banana nut bread (which this is the recipe for), you are hoping that if you do many things in the same way but hope for a different result, then it will hopefully manifest.

Do you want a different result?

Good, then CREATE in a different way.

Otherwise, enjoy your banana nut bread.  :-)

Yours in service and servanthood.


Incubating passion for excellence and authenticity in strategy and leadership.


  1. Hello Harold,

    As usual, your comments are thought provoking, and I do agree that cliches are used far too much in our ongoing business activities - especially by those who are desperately searching for some kind of validation for what are otherwise unsupportable conclusions.

    However, just like calling a process 'out of the box' thinking doesn't make it the real thing, as with any logical fallacy, the failure of a poor imitation doesn't mean that the real thing won't work. More importantly, we can't conclude that a failure resulting from a defective process is the fault of the people that were involved in that process. In fact the opposite is more likely.

    Most often, it is the people who are familiar with the intracate details and history of the 'box' that have most or all of the information required to create a new solution - if they can somehow be induced to use an 'out of the box' approach. Unfortunately, this means facing and overcoming the mental anquish that usually flows from this process, and that is an 'out of the box' exercise in itself.

    It may well require a fresh face to show a management team how to take an approach that is truly outside the current paradygm, however, those who the most familiar with how the status quo developed often hold the key pieces of the puzzle, even if they don't realize it. All they need are the tools and a bit of encouragement to stretch their comfort zone.

    In addition, when a solution is developed by those who are later tasked with implementing it, they tend to work harder at finding ways to make it work, rather than pointing out that it just won't.

    - Allan Corbett

  2. Good thoughts Harry. The problem for most of us is that we really do like the box with all of its predicatability and security - even if it is killing us. The leap of faith required for true creativity demands that we trust the process as much as the dream and then begin to forge ahead knowing all the time that this is what we have to do - not just want to do. Carmel D.

  3. Harry,

    I fully enjoyed your perspective on "Thinking Out of the Box", your analogy of a recipe reminded me of the times I have done exactly what you said and strangly enough with a similar outcome. As I am mulling over your blog I think about the last few months searching for this new perspective in my business.


  4. Hey Allan,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I agree that the drivers of the process are not necessarily the owners of the process. My point though (perhaps expressed poorly), was that using the same process will contribute significantly to producing the same result (regardless of whether the owner and the implementer are the same or different).

    I agree also that oftentimes, the people in the trenches have greater access to the knowledge. In addition, I agree that sometimes those people just need a little help from an outside observer, either to capture and express the knowledge in a different way or to create a different way of using the information or process.

    I don't entirely agree with your final conclusion. :-) I have witnessed some multi-million dollar failures where, for a number of corporate-internal reasons, the people who were implementing it actually couldn't have cared less about success.

    It's hard to fathom until you see some of these. I saw one on Wall Street where the same group, filled with malaise, went through the same actions, using the same people and the same knowledge, three times - spending millions EACH time.

    I got involved on the 4th pass. When I questioned whether they were concerned over previous failures (since they were getting ready to create a 4th failure), they cited the need for failure as necessary to maintain job security.

    On the 4th pass, they were all fired and replaced by consultants who were paid contigent on success - and it got done.

    So I hear you that this can happen. But I wonder if "tend" gives them too much credit. :-)

    Thank you so much for your sharing, Allan!

    Take care and create a great day!


  5. Hi Carmel (Anonymous) :-)

    Your reply really resonates with me. I think you have succinctly and accurately described the epitome of frustration in life for many people - the desire to want to be something or achieve something different than current reality - but being afraid to "go for it" for a variety of reasons.

    I also agree with your statement that most people need that comfort - being easier to stay where they are.

    It creates a classic structural tension between existing belief structures and desires / aspirations.

    Robert Fritz's book "The Path of Least Resistance" is a powerful book that describes this tension beautifully, including a way to escape it for those who want to overcome their fear. My thanks to Christopher R. for bringing this book to my attention.

    Thank you so much for sharing, Carmel!

    God Bless.


  6. Hi Peter,

    Many thanks for your comments.

    It appears that my comment has resonated with you regarding a current project of yours. I hope it provides some fuel to help you with your quest!

    Thanks for sharing, Peter and good luck with your quest.

    Take care and create a great day!


  7. Hi again, Carmel.

    I'm still digesting your response.

    This part in particular, "then begin to forge ahead knowing all the time that this is what we have to do - not just want to do" is something that resonates.

    Those who follow their passion do it because they simply have to for some reason.

    Having set out on such a quest, they discover that such a journey is exhilarating, frightening, purpose-filled, painful, satisfying and lonely - all wrapped up into one.

    There are days one is grateful for the journey and the knowledge / lessons learned and there are days when one doubts one's own sanity (along with everyone else who doubts your sanity).

    No wonder most people are afraid to engage in such a journey.

    I know I have embraced such a journey and I haven't decided if the journey is one of genius or insanity.

    As they say, the only difference between genius and insanity are the results as perceived by others.

    God Bless you, Carmel. Thank you for being part of my journey.


  8. A precise and well-articulated catapult into a REAL creative release of energy. I thank you! ...something to crow about--always in the last place we look. No more going back--I'm out-of-the-box now. (Was that too cliche?)

  9. A precise and well-articulated release to our REAL creative energies! I'm inspired and out-of-the-box now--endless possibilities straight ahead... Was that too cliche? Not if I know what I mean by it... Now to get others to know what that is... Right this way!

  10. Harry,
    Very thought provoking indeed.

    Before I got into project & program management (more than a few years ago) I was a ISO 9001 auditor and had to audit hundreds of projects, some with supposedly fantastic deliverables (planes etc.). Whenever things went wrong, gatherings would be held primarily to determine who to blame and then the machine would power up and continue on its merry way. Sometimes (and I really mean, "rarely") would the problem be actually eliminated, even when tens/hundreds of millions of pounds/dollars had been lost.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the same risk/reward systems were still in place. For example, the sales guy who sold the bad deal, still had his compensation - and wasn't made to pay it back to the company, the approvers of the deal didn't lose their jobs, they just blamed the front line people, the key decision makers continued to procrastinate (in order to supposedly find the 100% solution, when 60% would have been fine and course correct later with another 60% solution, and then another 60% and so on) and most importantly, the client who also played an integral role in the problem, continued to beat the vendor mercilessly, because to do otherwise would be admitting incompetence.

    In other words, no true partnership for risk & reward and therefore nothing changed!!!

    In order for "Thinking out of the Box" to truly succeed, it must come with a new risk/reward system that "vests" all stakeholders (including the front line employees) in achieving success.

    A great example of this was Bob Benmosche's leadership at MetLife during the Traveler's integration. By fundamentally changing the game
    and vesting all employees in MetLife in the success, he removed some of the biggest obstacles to getting a substantial result. He simply took the step to reward all employees with a bonus multiplier on successful completion of the acquisition-ALL employees-not just those that were direct participants.
    Everyone had a stake in the success and/or failure. As a result of his leadership style and his "out of the box thinking", the integration was a huge success.

  11. Harry,
    There are two principles that operate in life: homeostasis and morphogenesis. One creates stability while the other promotes change and evolution.

    Thinking out of the box is an attempt to create something new and incorporate that change into a structure or box. In reality, we need both principles. Change without structure doesn't work in the long run. Think of the wise saying, Creativity without structure or rigor leads to insanity whereas rigor without creativity leads to rigor mortis.

    The key is to identify where we are lacking. Creative types need to balance off with structure and bureaucrats need to incorporate creativity for balance.

    Management can often adopt a bureaucratic mind-set. The solution is to introduce a creative mind-set, not a bureaucratic mentality about "out of box" thinking.

    If you continue to think like you've always thought, you'll continue to get what your mind has bought.

  12. Hi Paul,

    Greetings, my friend - long time no chat!

    Your paragraph "In order for "Thinking out of the Box" to truly succeed, it must come with a new risk/reward system that "vests" all stakeholders (including the front line employees) in achieving success." resonated with me strongly.

    Since we all appreciate reward (financial, peer recognition, corporate trinket, a sense of accomplishment, etc), changing the risk / reward model may provide incentive to want to try something different and thus produce a different result (hopefully better).

    Thanks for sharing your perspective from a large corporate perspective!

    Take care, Paul!


  13. Hi Leonard,

    I really like your professional perspective on this (for those who don't know, Leonard is a professional psychotherapist. His website is here).

    I am fascinated by the structural tension between ideas that promote stability versus change and evolution.

    You have nailed it when it comes to what many of us face when trying to get the static to be more creative and the creative to "tone down their creativity" a little bit. :-)

    You are right about the need to find balance between the two.

    Did you coin the phrase If you continue to think like you've always thought, you'll continue to get what your mind has bought.?

    It is very catchy and profound.

    Take care and create a great day, Leonard.


  14. Hi Saijin,

    Thank you for your kind comments and for reminding me of some cliches that I had forgotten. :-)

    Take care and create a great day!