6 Tips for Thinking Outside the Box

In the 1970s psychologist J.P. Guilford conducted a study of creativity that included the classic “9 dots problem.” I won’t spoil the fun for those who wish to try to solve the problem for themselves, but suffice it to say that the problem is likely the source for the analogy “thinking outside the box,”. Since Guilford’s study, “thinking outside the box” has become a common phrase in business-speak, from consultants to ordinary employees and managers.

Yet “thinking outside the box” is futile unless you first work to understand what is inside the box. A long-time CEO client of mine asked me to observe a staff meeting she held a few years ago. At one point during the meeting, the CEO noticed one of her senior executives remained silent during an update on changes in the product development cycle to address recent problems hitting deadlines. So she asked for his perspective on the changes.

The executive paused, thought for an uncomfortable few moments, and then responded, “We need to think outside the box about how to solve these problems.” Then, he began to pontificate about how traditional thinking would jeopardize the change initiative’s success. The executive’s tone was serious, but his words were mostly empty platitudes.

After the meeting, the CEO asked what I thought about this executive’s response. I suggested that the executive didn’t really seem to know what is really going on, so he masked his lack of understanding with catch-phrases. This executive couldn’t truly engage the changes to the business, because he hadn’t taken time to study the box—the business—and how its parts related to one another.

To problem-solve effectively, executives must understand the whole organization. But they must also understand the parts that constitute the whole. Absent an understanding of the parts in the whole you are dealing with – and their relationships to one another – you can’t define the box, what’s inside or how it works.

True leadership requires an understanding of what’s inside the box (i.e., the business). They need this understanding to make decisions, and to help their followers make sense of things. So, before “thinking outside the box” here are six things leaders ought to know how to do:

1. Define.

What are the contents of the box, the parts, and how do they relate to one another? Problems are best defined when the relationships among the parts are explained first. We often define the problem incorrectly. We limit our thinking by improperly understanding the box we are dealing with.

2. Measure.

Establish the right measures to learn the strength or weakness of your business and its operations. The right measures communicate at a glance the health of key relationships.

3. Crack the mystery.

Too many leaders accept that portions of their businesses are black boxes beyond their understanding. Leaders with complex IT infrastructures, in particular may be tempted to believe the mystery is inaccessible. But these leaders need to make the effort to know these areas and technologies to determine whether they can trust the expertise of their team.

4. Admit when you don’t understand.

Some leaders struggle to learn the business or to maintain focus on what is going on inside the box. The humility to profess ignorance and seek information will go a long way to building your people’s trust and confidence, provided you make the necessary effort to get up to speed.

5. Begin again.

When you’re lost or change has been rapid, ask your people to get up to speed. One leader I know sat for an afternoon with his two data experts trying to grasp a critical measure he reported to the board of directors. “Pete, you wouldn’t believe it. I suddenly realized, neither of these so-called experts could explain to me where the data came from and how the calculation worked.” The experience helped this executive realize he and his team needed to dig deeper.

6. Practice your thinking.

Edward de Bono’s excellent book, “Six Thinking Hats,” is a great reminder that we need to keep our intellects exercised to keep them healthy. Use this book, or another of the classics, to continue to develop your problem solving and creativity skills. de Bono’s process is a big help in avoiding being overwhelmed by the whole (large problems, complexity of the system, etc.).

Before you think outside the box, make the commitment to understand what’s inside it!