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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX (but don’t forget the value of the box!)

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again.”  Under any definition, we would call this “out of the box” thinking. 

“People can have the model T in any color they want, as long as it’s black.”  That doesn’t sound very much like “out of the box” thinking, does it?

So how is it that both sayings are attributed to the same man, Henry Ford?  These two statements seem to be in direct opposition.  How can we reconcile them?

Henry Ford was, by any definition, a wildly successful man, celebrated for such out of the box ideas as the modern assembly line, interchangeable parts, and high wages.  Interestingly enough, Henry Ford also did his part for civil rights.  Ford promoted equal opportunity employment from the very beginning of the Ford Motor Company in 1903.  Ford believed that “skill and talent should be utilized without reference to race or color”, and thus hired minorities and trained them for jobs that required skilled labor, working side by side with white workers. 

With such “out of the box” thinking, what’s the story with the “any color they want, as long as it’s black”?  Even with all his out of the box thinking, I believe that Henry also knew the value of the box itself.

Before we look at the obvious values of the out of the box model, we should first look at the box.  Why do we even have the box?  What is the box?

We all have lots of boxes in our lives.  We have

  • Boxes that tell us how to behave in public
  • Boxes that tell us how to behave as husbands, wives, Mothers, Fathers, friends
  • Boxes for how we conduct ourselves at work

Boxes that mark the boundaries of society, behavior, and social mores.

Boxes, boxes and more boxes.

If we look at it this way, many of these boxes are pretty valuable.  I’m sure that you have boxes that are critical to your business.  These boxes contain the tools you need to execute the solutions that the outside the box thinking helps develop.  These boxes contain tools that set rules for decision making, for analyzing data, tracking and managing projects, procedures for getting things done. 

Once Henry Ford established the assembly line, and the concept of interchangeable parts, these because invaluable boxes that allowed the American auto industry to flourish.  Working inside these boxes enabled Detroit to mass produce the automobile and spread the message of American power and influence around the globe.  But, these boxes also became a trap.  The boxes invented by Detroit eventually constrained their thinking.  Their boxes didn’t allow for imaginative and unconventional thinking.  Their perspective, like that of the sled dogs in the back, never changed. 

We need to use the boxes as they were intended, but avoid getting stuck on the inside.  If not for the boxes, we wouldn’t have anything to color out of, would we?

So, how do we think outside the box?  The first thing we need to do is accept that not all parameters, or lines of the box, are a bad thing.  That may sound counter-intuitive, but too much freedom just becomes chaos and will hinder our creatively.  Boundaries give us form and function, which give our ideas depth and breath.  Our creatively has to be anchored somewhere before we can set it free.

Search for random inspiration.  Inspiration from things outside our normal boxes.  Read, watch, study, learn new and different things.   Things totally unrelated to your work.  When you permit your mind to look at different things, your perspective changes.  A change in perspective can be the trigger that allows our minds to take all the input we gather day after day and shake it up and pour it out in all sorts of different ways. 

Outside the box thinking allows us to reframe the problem, or as I mentioned earlier, look at it from a different perspective.  To engage in lateral thinking.  Lateral thinking, a term first coined by Edward de Bono in 1967 means to think about problems in an indirect and creative way.  Lateral thinking is, by definition, out of the box.

Let me tell you a story that wonderfully illustrates out of the box thinking.  A poor farmer owed the bank a large sum of money, which he could not repay.  The banker, an evil fellow had his eye on the farmer’s beautiful daughter.  He suggested that if he could have her hand in marriage, he would forgive the debt.  The farmer and his daughter were horrified and refused.  The banker then said “I will give you a chance to repay the debt and keep your daughter.”  He proposed that they meet him by the river the next day and he would give them the change.  The next day, when they met by the river, the banker told them he would put a black stone, and a white in a bag.  If the daughter picked the white stone out of the bag, the debt would be paid and she would be free.  If she picked the black stone, she would be his wife.  But, when he bent down to pick up the stones, the sharp-eyed daughter saw that he picked up two black stones and put them in the bag. 

What was she to do?  If she refused to pick a stone out of the bag, they would lose their chance to be free of the debt.  If she did pick a stone, it would be black, and she would be forced to marry the banker. 

Being a clever girl, she thought outside the box, or in this case, outside the bag. 

She reached into the bag and picked a stone.  However, when she withdrew her hand, she accidently dropped the stone among all the other black and white stones alongside the river.  She then said “Oh, how careless of me.  But, it is still okay.  All we need to do is look inside the bag and see what color the remaining stone is, and we will then know which color stone I picked.

Out of the box thinking.  How can we foster it in ourselves?  First of all, we should eliminate what may keep us from thinking outside the box.

  1. Do we have a negative attitude?
  2. Are we perfectionists?
  3. Do we see everything as black and white?
  4. Do we immediately make assumptions and stick to them
  5. Do we too often jump to conclusions?
  6. Is our logic inflexible?

So, lets take that list I just gave you and turn it on it’s head.

  1. Eliminate the negative attitude.  For some of us, this can be difficult, but I would start by avoiding negative people.  And, if your co-worker is being negative, call them on it.
  2. Don’t worry about perfection.  EMC has great products.  We have great service.  We have great people.  But, we don’t have perfect products, no matter what marketing may say.  We don’t have perfect service, event though we try to convince our bosses that we do.  We don’t have perfect people.  Just ask anyone around job performance review time.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not promoting mediocrity.  We need to strive for perfection, but we can’t allow this striving to prevent ourselves from moving forward, from taking the risk of trying something different. 
  3. Get your eyes checked.  If you see everything in black and white, ask someone else what color they see, and then imagine it in that color.
  4. Don’t assume.  Enough said about that.
  5. Challenge your conclusions.  Examine it closely before you make that jump.
  6. Be flexible.  In the words of the late senator Dirkson from Illinois “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

None of you sitting here today would be here if you weren’t very good at what you do.  None of you would be that good at what you do if you didn’t have at least some ability to think out the box.  To color outside the lines.  

I encourage you to keep pushing the corners of the box.  When you see a little daylight peeking through that corner you know you’re on the right track.  Push harder.  It could get uncomfortable.  That’s a good thing.  As President Kennedy said “ There are risks and costs to a action.  But they are far less than the long range risks and cost of comfortable inaction.”

Let’s be people of action.  People of discomfort.  Let’s not be afraid to pick up those crayons and make a mess.  Who knows what we could come up with?





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