Question: Pete, my boss is constantly telling us to “think outside the box.” He preaches about how we need to think differently, but he isn’t willing to help solve the problems. What can I do?

Answer:

The analogy “thinking outside the box” likely originates with a study of creativity using the classic “ 9 dots problem” led by psychologist J.P. Guilford in the 1970s. I won’t ruin the answer for those who wish to try to solve the problem for themselves, but suffice it to say that the solution literally lies “outside of the box” of nine dots. Since Guilford’s study, “thinking outside the box” has been the catch-phrase across a broad swath from creativity consultants to ordinary employees and managers.

For the most part, thinking outside the box is a frustrating exercise unless you first work to understand what is inside. A few years ago, I was in a meeting with a CEO, a long-time client of mine, and her staff. The executive in charge of product development was updating the team on several changes to the new product delivery process. “This is going to change the way we have been approaching standard projects,” he exclaimed. The CEO noticed one of the other executives, Bob, was silent, so she asked for his perspective on the changes.

Bob thought for an uncomfortable time and then responded, “We need to think outside the box about how to implement these changes.” Then, he began to opine about how traditional thinking would jeopardize the project’s success. Bob’s tone was calm, but his words were mostly empty platitudes.

After the meeting, the CEO asked for my view. I replied, “Bob doesn’t seem to know what is really going on, so he pivots to a narrative of appearing open minded to mask his lack of understanding about how the business really works.” Bob couldn’t truly engage the changes to the business, because he hadn’t taken time to study the box—the business—and its contents—how the parts related to one another.