I recently saw a post here on LinkedIn where Chrissie Wywrot of e-link consulting asked, “what phrases do you hear all the time that make you want to throat-punch the speaker.” The responses were fast coming, things like “low hanging fruit, win-win, we have to socialize this,” abounded. My personal least-favorite saying was “out of the box.” I hear it all the time. I am my firm’s Chief Creative Officer, where I lead our employer brand practice and creative team, making me responsible for leading the out of the box’ness charge. This one phrase causes more consternation than all the others. In practice, whenever we actually go outside the box, we’re mostly told we went too far, didn’t understand the goal, the RFP, the client, the universe, how clocks work, and the like. This one phrase stands above all others in my list of “ughh, not that one again,” so I thought it’d be fun to deconstruct it.
At one time, “Out of the Box” was the name of a children’s show where a box made of cardboard served as something of a stage for children’s stories and songs. Perhaps you know it? Nevertheless, somewhere down the line, it was taken over and warmly embraced by businesses around the world. I don’t think any other phrase brings more terror among creative and strategic thinkers. Being asked to “go outside the box” implies it’s ok to assume there are no rules or feel free to break them. That there are no constraints, a safe space for invention, so take all the intellectual, creative, or technical risk necessary and stand in the unproven realm of ‘innovation.’ It’s really nerve-wracking to recommend to a client or team to try something with no track record, no history, and definitely, no data to point to that success is right around the corner. Being “unique” is often indefensible because nothing is provable. It can feel like being in zero gravity. Case in point, Amazon started life trying to sell books online and all it did was lose money, and for decades, while it kept reinventing. Who among us wouldn’t have pulled the plug after 10 years of not financially succeeding?
I know that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but being asked to show out-of-the-box ideas and how an idea or solution will impact ROI are at odds with each other. There’s another theory out there that goes, “it’s not the idea itself that matters, just like with Jeff Bezo’s Amazon, it’s the execution.” The more out of the box something is, the more difficult it is to prove that it’ll work and the more likely it will scare the heck out of everyone. In one RFP scenario, we were explicitly asked to go out of the box and present things never been tried or seen to show the world that this company had no equal. It’s actually written that way.
We lost that RFP pitch – and so emphatically – that years and years later, my boss still reminds me that we lost that one. We got it dead wrong with something that met every criterion and then some. In fact, when I show that work to anyone else, they go, “wow, that’s incredible, awesome, amazing.” But not to that client. What won? Something so conventionally in the box that I scratched my head so hard, I lost all my hair. Well, I was losing it anyway, and I have out of the box to thank for that.
So I dug in. Thinking outside the box or thinking beyond the box is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is said to derive from a famous puzzle created by early 20th-century British mathematician Henry Ernest Dudeney, in which someone is asked to interconnect nine dots in a three-by-three grid by using four straight lines drawn without the pencil leaving the paper. It can’t be done if we don’t ask the right questions, or take a leap of faith about the rules, that is.
To be successful, the puzzle solver has to realize that the boundaries of the dot array are psychological. The rules say nothing about drawing outside the circles themselves. If we don’t ask, because it’s not clearly articulated where one’s pen can wander, then we see a natural box shape. But it’s just a shape in our minds—there is no actual box. The only way to solve the puzzle is to extend the lines beyond the artificial boundary created by the nine dots.
In reality, there never was a box, only 9 dots. We unconsciously create the outer box lines – and without clear rules or asking if we can draw outside the virtual image of the grid, we’re doomed. Does the solution break the rules? No, breaking our own mental rules is at play. The puzzle challenge is not that far off from what happens at work. How great would life be if the instructions to the puzzle clearly said, “it’s ok to draw on any part of the paper.” I’m confident a lot more people would solve this puzzle the first time around. Most of us, after seeing the solution, say, oh, didn’t know we could draw outside the box. And therein lies what I think is the issue with this tiny little phrase. The solution to getting better out-of-the-box ideas is to ‘ask’ for them better.
Imagine you’re in a meeting, and the meeting leader says, “we have this challenge, and we need ideas that may or may not be ones we’ve tried – or anyone has tried – for that matter. They can be scary ideas, risky ideas, unproven ideas, even expensive ideas. Don’t worry about proving they can work or if they will pay off in the end. Ignore all costs.” What do you think the team would respond with?
I vote to banish the phrase “out of the box” forever and be transparent. If we can’t live with an unproven thing, then we ask for rehashed ideas, tangential ideas, incremental ideas or old ideas executed differently. If we can’t accept something too risky, then we say we’re looking for strategies that don’t require a lot of time, investment, or effort to implement. You can see where this is going. If we put as much time into explaining the ground rules first, more people will come up with exciting ideas, whether they are drawn in the lines, just a hair outside or huge risky leaps. I love the 9 dot puzzle because it’s not the problem that is the problem, it’s the reading of the question itself. If anyone wants out-of-the-box ideas, make the boundaries and rules clear and you’ll get a flood of them. I like to think of it this way: to ask for out-of-the-box ideas is to start with an out-of-the-box way of asking.
Have you ever been asked to come up with out-of-the-box ideas? How did that go?