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Feb 24, 2012

Thinking outside the box(es)

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In business circles, one often hears people saying: “Think outside the box.” This is thrown around quite glibly. Part of the work that I do is to think outside the box. I go to companies, large and small, and conduct strategy and planning sessions to get people to move outside their boxes. So, over the years, I have had to think about the concept quite a bit.

A conclusion that I have come to is that the term ‘think outside the box’ is incorrect. It should be ‘to think outside the boxes’. Note that the plural is very important. Have a look at the diagram. All of us have multiple boxes embedded in our brains. We can never get outside all our boxes at any time, and even trying to move out of some of them is hard work.

One can be inside the red box, which is a compartment of ‘boxified’ thinking, and, after some mental gymnastics, one can manage to get out of that box, only to find that one is still inside the yellow box. With some more mental agility, you get out of that box, only to find that you are still inside the green box. But these three boxes are each inside one another and they represent an ever-expanding thinking pattern emanating from one starting point.
However, there are also intersecting and overlapping boxes that represent other constraints on our thinking, and range of actions. For example, one such box can be religion. Christians, Jews and Muslims will have different attitudes to what one can do on different days of the week. Friday, Saturday and Sunday have different meanings for different groups.

There are also the male and female boxes. Men will have different mental confines to women’s. Men may have no problem working alone on the midnight shift, but women may see it differently.

We also all have mental boxes stemming from our family background and upbringing, and also from the work we have done for years, or from various companies for which we have worked in the past.

Many of these boxes intersect and overlap. So, at some point, a Jewish man may be outside his male box but still be inside his Jewish box. A Muslim woman may get out of her Muslim box but still be inside her female box. Both may still be inside mental boxes that are there because they have worked indoors all their lives, and have never been in an underground mine, so asking them to come up with a new rock drilling technique will be inherently bounded by their life experience.

I recall once working with Army officers in designing new armoured fighting vehicles. They were all talking about larger guns and more armour on the front and sides. Then, in our third meeting, we brought in two Air Force helicopter pilots. They were the most junior and sat there in their blue uniforms, looking most uncomfortable. After a while, the one pilot said: “We would fly over the top and shoot down through the tank commander’s hatch cover – it is the thinnest metal.” I am not imply- ing that the Army officers would not have considered air power; they are smart fellows, but the tone of the discussion then changed. A ‘box’ had been breached.

When space scientists imagine looking for life on other planets, they have to get outside boxes that define life on earth. Maybe life on other planets does not necessarily need oxygen, so one does not necessarily have to find extraterrestrial oxygen to support life. For years, scien- tists have searched for extreme life forms on earth . . . and found many. Life has been found in freezing-cold conditions and in boiling-hot conditions, both of which were earlier thought to be too extreme to support life. Life has been found at the bottom of the ocean, where there is no light, and also where seabed volcanic vents produce such an extreme concentration of toxic chemicals that nobody thought that life could exist there either. But it does. So, in looking for life on other planets, the scientists have to mentally get out of quite a few boxes.

I have done work in places like a cement plant in which the senior executives wanted to redesign some systems. Most of them had spent 20 to 30 years in the business. In contrast, I had been in a variety of other plants, such as food-canning plants and beer-bottling plants. I could mentally compare the production lines and what worked best in each and bring this into the discussion. Many people who have spent 20 to 30 years in some business have never ever been into any other sort of business.

I get invited to sit in on company meetings to listen to the plans and to give comment. I have found that many people believe that they are well and truly ‘thinking outside the box’ – but they are not.

The art of thinking is hard work, and ‘out of the boxes’ thinking is the most difficult. Many people fall into the trap of believing that they can just do it themselves because they just declare that today they are going to think outside the box.

They try it, not realising that they are all still inside a whole bunch of boxes. A good facilitator is required to mentally pull, push and jerk the minds of participants to get outside of many mental boxes that they often do not even realise exist.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
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