Picture a business meeting room anywhere in the world. Big topics are being discussed: Digital transformation. New business models. Competitive entries. New product ideas. Strategy.
And for sure there will be at one moment that somebody says:
„We have to think out of the box!“
What is it that people have with this box? It looks like that there seems to be some magical place outside where we can find great inspiration, great ideas.
I argue that it is actually easier to come up with new ideas, with greater speed, if we sometimes think INSIDE the box. If we limit the degrees of freedom in our work and approach.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. If I were to ask you to think about your vision, and to write down your personal vision, you might be lost. So many options, so many ideas. But if I were to ask you to write down your vision in 6 words or less, you have a box, a limitation and a place to start. And who knows, maybe you come up with something similar to Steve Jobs’ iPod vision of “A 1000 songs in your pocket.”
There are countless more ideas and ways of working that suggest that putting boundaries and boxes on your work lead to deeper results and ideas. Here is an overview of boxes that I recommend everybody should try out.
This is the most classic of all boxes. Classic examples are Hackathons and 24h „Fedex“ days where you try to create a piece of software in 24 hours or less. The power of the time limitation works. Like Harry Shearer said: “I am one of those people who thrive on deadlines, nothing brings on inspiration more readily than desperation.“ This box can be applied in a multitude of ways, be it the Pomodoro technique where you work for 25 minutes on something or the “Shut up and write“ concept where writers sit together for one hour and do nothing else than writing. By putting this time limit true productivity and creativity and exploration flourish.
One example for a process box is the art of debating. You put one argument against another, in a structured process of „pro“ vs. „con“. The process gets to results fast and it avoids the typical issues that arise from just “discussing” something, like endless back and forth talking. I used this concept in corporate and innovation contexts to let teams really look at all sides of problems. I recommend studying debating groups or even watching some debating championships to understand the power of this proces.
The classic Procter & Gamble one-page memo gives a framework of a specific set of questions and topics that need to be addressed in the memo. It puts a box around the way every memo in the company should be created. With this, people know immediately which questions need to be addressed and go fast to think deep without thinking about the structure. That is also the power of boxing—it allows to reach depth fast.
During my keynotes I give people sometimes a challenge when we talk about strategy and vision development. I give only 4 small boxes where they can write in and they have to come up with a brief storyboard of their message. After having tested this with thousands of people I can safely say that the space limit helps everybody to come up with a message that can be immediately tested in a very fast time frame. Why? Because the space limitation let’s you focus immediately.
On Twitter and among writers there is an ongoing challenge to come up with #sixwordstories. There are also Japanese Haikus or 50 words poetry challenges. All of these approaches work extremely well because the resources you have are limited and you have to think about one thing less when you go about your creative work. The same is true if you have only so much resources available for your product innovation. There is even a term in India for this called “Jugaad”, the art of frugal innovation. Being limited in resources can get to a lot of new, creative combinations. It immediately pushes us to think more deeply, as the startup “Sky Box” has shown. Their resource box was to create a satellite with only commercially available parts (in contrast to specifically tailor made parts). And they could achieve it and developed a satellite much below the current cost, and where later acquired by Google. These limitations work. As Jim Rohn said:
“There are only 3 colors, 10 digits and 7 notes; it’s what we do with them that’s important.“
Ritual-boxing is referring to a timeframe or fixed process that you give, to allow people to develop depth and test out something new. A Japanese Kata is a good example of this. Pratcicioners practice a fixed process and set of movements to develop their own style. While limiting the kind of movements to the form, it allows you to develop depth within. A company example of a thing ritual is Toyota’s A3 problem solving culture that demands that all problems are approached on an A3 sheet.
This is a special way of boxing which helps you try out new ideas. Originated in software design, this type of thinking limits the effort and effect a new type of software code or a new product can have. You let it play in the sandbox where it can’t do a lot of harm. With that you limit the impact something new can have to a very limited field. Applications in business of this are test markets or small experiments that can’t do any big harm, or for instance testing something in just a small meeting.
Thinking inside the box allows for deep thinking and exploration
Of course it is ok to have wild and special ideas. To go to different places and to think „Out-of-the-box“. However, when it comes to change, creativity, innovation, even transformation, I recommend to start to think INSIDE the box. Think inside one, or a combination of these boxes, and it’s much easier to go deep in here. As Brendon Burchard said –
„To rise higher, go deeper“
As a leader, it’s much easier to implement the art of experimenting and creativity if you think inside a box, a framework or structure. The organization can then implement things easier, and you get going on a journey towards depth and exploration.
Do you want to learn more? Watch my TEDx talk that explains the concept further in-depth. And please leave a comment about your favourite „box“.
Lars Sudmann is an expert on high-performance leadership in global corporations. You can contact Lars to work with you as keynote speaker for your next event or strategy advisor and executive coach for your management team.