4 ways we can think outside the box

by | Leadership

It’s one of those kick-in-the-pants terms we use when the ideas sitting on the table just feel too old or stuffy or normal. Like: even if we acted on these ideas, nothing would really change. When people expend a lot of energy and work really hard, but sense that nothing is fundamentally changing, it can be depressing.

So, then someone who’s been around that block says, “Hey, let’s think outside the box.”

It’s almost always a worthy exhortation, for good reason–it’s a challenge to think differently about a problem or situation, to change the status quo, to progress, to exercise creativity. People get stuck in ruts mentally, viewing problems through the same lens over and over, so being reminded to think outside the box is like someone splashing cold water on your brain (huh, that was weird to picture).

So, how exactly does one thinks outside a box?

By the way, let’s define ‘the box’ as the prevailing beliefs and behaviors related to a situation or problem. Ok, so what does it look like to think outside of this? Here are a few thoughts:

1) Think in more sustainable terms. In business, this commonly translates to helping teams exchange a reactive, break-fix mentality with a proactive, creative mentality, whereby our solutions are designed and executed such that the original problem itself is not only answered, but often eliminated. A simple example of this could be a business process during which documents or decisions (or even the widgets themselves) are lost or misplaced in a hand-off along the value chain.

An inside-the-box solution to this might be to install additional quality checks and oversight into the process, essentially clamping down harder on the problem to hopefully minimize it. I think sometimes this works fine, it just requires more resources and controls.

An outside-the box solution might start with the question, “Why are we vulnerable to losing documents, decisions, or widgets at this point in the process, in the first place?” This summons a different answer than “How do we minimize the problem?” Instead, you’ll start thinking outside the box about redesigning the workflow, perhaps introducing automation or shared storage or something else that redefines or erases the original “hand-off” altogether.

2) Pull longer-range goals into the discussion today. Even though today we may only be capable of implementing steps 1 and 2—if we practice pulling more long-range vision and targets into the discussion, it often provides the practical why behind steps 1 and 2. You might think of this more like thinking beyond the box.

I try to embody and demonstrate with any team or team member how to constantly be “zooming in and zooming out” between our long-range mission and the details we’re tackling today. Strategic roadmaps, scopes of work, action plans, and project plans play a significant role in this regard. In each case, we’re essentially casting and creating a vision of the future for everyone’s minds to wrap around and work towards. I believe it is any leader’s job to help those around them feel a greater sense of being pulledforward rather than pushed from behind. It’s just more compelling.

3) It requires both right and left brain activities. If the point of thinking outside the box is to advance and progress and move forward, then the task is always to turn abstract ideas into real action and results. What starts as a creative idea or vision about the future must then be worked backwards into today’s action plans.

Every day, in every way I try to help the people around me tie these two things together. Often, this truly takes a team with a variety of gifts to accomplish well. It could be defining the next milestone on a project, or setting a strategic direction for the next 12 months, or selecting a technology solution that serves the business strategy (or a hundred other things!). Whatever it is, as long as it remains unclear how to translate a great idea into action, thinking outside the box requires you to relentlessly keep asking questions until we know enough to take the next step.

4) Lastly, it demands the courage to fail. On the other side of true courage is humility. Part of being brave enough to venture outside the box is possessing an inner confidence in who you are that is not contingent on being right all the time. Your commitment to discovering something real and better beyond the conventional box must outweigh your own personal need for validation and approval.

What is the point of thinking outside the box?

The whole point of thinking outside the box is not just self-expression or becoming more creative–this would be too small a cause because it’s still just about you. Rather, I’ve found the most compelling motivation for thinking outside the box is being filled with a desire and passion for finding better ways to serve the needs of others.

And as a by-product (not a prime product), it is how you will keep your own box lid open, as well.

About Edifiers

Edifiers Consulting is an El Paso-based business consulting firm specializing in project management and process improvement. We help clients implement their organizational, operational, and business technology transformations.


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