Outside-the-Box Thinking? Maybe Not.

With so much focus on thinking outside the box, many of us often forget that simply thinking inside the box will give us the answers we need. If you're having difficulty completing projects on time, you may just need to use the skills you already have inside, rather than what lies outside.

If I had a donut for every time someone advocated thinking outside the box, I would be too bloated to squeeze into the box to point out the potential flaws in this idea.

The problem with outside-the-box thinking is that we often do a dismal job of thinking inside the box. We fall victim to familiar traps, such as doing things the same old ineffective way or discounting the ideas of colleagues, thereby reducing our chances of success.

Here’s an example. A while back, I facilitated a 20-minute exercise to help a group of IT professionals reflect on problems they’d been having in successfully completing their projects. I had the group divide into five teams. Each team then tackled the same project: using the materials provided, they had to build a structure that met certain specifications. As in their IT projects, this one was characterized by ambiguity, unclear priorities, and a tight deadline.

The teams worked quickly, each determined to build the required structure. And they could have succeeded. Yet, when the time was up, all the structures fell short in meeting the requirements. As the teams looked around at each other’s structures, they became aware of things they could have done that would have brought them much closer to success.

I asked the teams to spend five minutes creating a list of things they might have done differently to achieve a better outcome. Despite having only five minutes, the resulting lists were long. And on every team’s list was, “We should have done more thinking outside the box.” Perhaps. But all the other ideas on their lists — ideas that would have helped them succeed — resided smack dab inside the box.

Their lists included, among other things:

    • Listen to each other’s suggestions.
    • Don’t be so quick to dismiss each other’s ideas.
    • Identify and challenge our assumptions.
    • Spend more time planning before starting to build.
    • Ask more questions about what’s expected.
    • Ask better questions about what’s expected.
    • Collaborate with the other teams and learn from each other.
    • Consider what we’ve learned in projects like this one.
    • Consider what we’ve learned in projects unlike this one.
    • Relate this problem to others we’ve had experience with.
    • Have a team member observe how we’re doing and give us feedback.
    • Stop periodically and assess how we’re doing.

Great ideas — and not one of them required venturing outside the box.

Strikingly, one of the most productive things the teams could have done was to call a time-out to draw up lists like the ones they generated afterwards. In creating these lists in a mere five minutes, they demonstrated that they already had a wealth of knowledge and expertise.  But they forgot, discounted or ignored what they already knew.

Outside-the-box thinking can trigger innovative, wow-generating ideas. But the ideas will flop when the people involved ignore inside-the-box ideas such as those listed above. Our challenge is to look around from our perch inside the box and ask, “What options and opportunities are right here for the taking?”

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