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When “Outside of the Box” is Unproductive

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When “Outside of the Box” is Unproductive

This might be the most un-sexy article I have ever written. I’m beginning it with a math puzzle and ending it by telling you that sometimes the way you are doing things is just fine.

About 25-30 years ago – I was sitting in a classroom. There was an old math question that all of the students had to figure out. I don’t remember all the details – but the basic premise was this:

Two individuals had to move fifty 100 pound blocks to the other side of town. The first person wanted to carry them one by one. Each one would take her 30 minutes. The other person, thinking “outside of the box,” was to build a pulley system that would help him move each one in 3 minutes. However, building the pulley system would take 23 hours. There was a deadline. Who would get it done first?

(Don’t actually do the math – I can tell you the girl carrying each one wins.)

I don’t know why this puzzle always stuck with me. Maybe it was one of the first times I was able to predict the leading answer wouldn’t be correct. Maybe it was the only time I ever got a math question right. Maybe it was the symbolism – that sometimes the most basic way to get something done is the most effective.

Fast forward to today, and the math puzzle is ever-prevalent in the large organizations I work with. Often times, we spend so much time thinking of new ways to do things that we lose sight of the most effective way to get something done.

Trying to be “outside of the box” makes you very un-creative and incredibly un-productive. Organizations love to say they are removing limits. Open floor plans, “matrix” organizations, and “thinking groups” are being implemented and pushed forward in an effort to drive collaboration, creativity and innovation. While some of these are good for specific groups to question the status quo, we are actually finding that the removal of limitations and structure is having a profound effect on actually getting things done on a larger scale. By removing these limitations, organizations are trying to force creativity – to arbitrarily innovate – and often end up with the exact opposite result. Basically, employing too many disruptors produces disruption – not necessarily success.

The limits of being “inside the box” – and limits in general – are good! Sometimes boxes are good!

They can hold a lot of stuff! They can be stacked and labeled and organized! We know what can go in and out of a box. And, from a metaphorical perspective, they give us parameters under which to operate; a home base from where we can challenge and stretch our abilities. Limits and processes provide an anchor or catalyst for thinking – not a constraint.

To increase the creativity and innovation on your team – to get them to think “outside of the box” – you need to actually create and define what box there is. It may sound counter-intuitive, but you can’t think outside of the box if you don’t know where outside is. It’s this box, the limitations that are imposed, that make us our most creative. When we have parameters that we can’t cross, this is when we truly innovate, to reach our goals in spite of limitations.

Creativity and innovation need to be organic. As much as we’d like to, we can’t turn on a creativity faucet. Creativity is born when two things intersect – individual perspective and the limitations imposed on that perspective. Creativity, innovation, “outside of the box thinking” – or whatever you want to call it – is a process that has to happen naturally and not take extra effort. It’s an evolution of current state into future state. And for that to happen, you need everyone focused on their true strengths and bringing forth their best efforts.

Don’t focus on thinking outside of the box. Focus on creating your box. Define it. Enhance it. Use it to get things done. Process improvement, innovation and creativity all come over time through an openness to new perspectives that evolve from accomplishing the task at hand and actually getting things done.

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