Thinking Outside the Box Frustrates Leaders

Innovate with Less

Do you want to innovate with less, to see and play with patterns to achieve extraordinary results? Then stop thinking outside the box and get back into the box of your discipline, organization, and life. Rearrange what you have.

No one is going to give you more resources until you prove yourself. And the greatest outside-the-box (OTB) thinking will get you fired, discredited, and maybe killed if you can’t solve an immediate problem-now.

Everyone wants to think outside the box. But where’s the practical side of OTB problem-solving? It creates tension between innovative “outside” learning and the everyday constraints of a real job. Thinking OTB frustrates leaders who have to solve problems back inside the box of their work. OTB thinking denies our vital problem-solving capacity.

So I start in the toybox. I adapt lessons from how kids play to help adults at work. Play unleashes our performance innovation potential.

Unfortunately, our workplaces and our world also isolate innovators. So, thinking OTB doesn’t work for what many people need. When people return after an off-site retreat, they encounter unfinished work and resentful colleagues. Result: increased dissatisfaction with themselves, their work, and the innovation process.

We must innovate with less at work in order to see and play with patterns across multiple arenas of our lives, to achieve goals with what we have now, within the day-to-day realities.

Inside the Box: A System of Creativity

Inside the Box: A System of Creativity

To think inside the box, choose the right box and start playing your best game. Try taking these seven steps:

  1. See Mud, Find Grid. We work in mess. And the mess holds the key to improving our performance. If we can see and play with patterns we uncover in the mess of work, we can make decisions that will provide solid business value. No more indecision. We have to wade in the mud to grab the grid within. We have to find new ways to see and dig into our workplace mess. We must unearth powerful patterns that we can change. And we have to do it cheaply, quickly, and safely. But how? You guessed it: Think inside the box.
  2. Accept Your Messy Box. Welcome to work in our supposedly sparkly clean and tidy “knowledge economy.” Don’t spill on your computer. Print that spreadsheet. Get your feet off the desk! Work hasn’t always been so orderly. Our modern workplaces hide our messes behind reports, delicately presented in slick slide-shows by fashionable professionals. Thus, we miss the mess. Deal with the fact that you have to work inside a messy box filled to the brim with the murky politics, limited resources, pain, and pressure that come with earning a living and making a life through work. Now use your skills, talents, expertise, and creativity within the constraints of your workplace-your box-to innovate and excel.
  3. 'Inside the Box' by Drew Boyd (ISBN 1451659296) Name Your Mess. Mess is unfamiliar complexity. Today, leaders face more complex and unfamiliar challenges. Mess fills the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Define your stakeholders’ environment, resources, barriers, and opportunities into patterns for change, and you simplify their mess and maximize your effectiveness. Mess is unfamiliar, so fear it, right? Try again. We can’t think right when we sense fear. Innovative problemsolving inside the box defuses fear. You manage mess in a safe, familiar, dynamic, and respectful environment. Mess can be found and managed in three areas of performance: 1) internal dynamics-team-building, office politics, workplace communications, language, and culture; 2) external trends and influences-market forces, social norms, popular media; and 3) constant environmental change-restructuring, disintermediation, cultural diversity. Inbox thinking helps people change complex messes into defined barriers to excellence. With less stress, leaders identify next steps to solve messes just in time.
  4. Find Your Crystal Question. Want some change? You gotta ask. Define a critical question (related to issues, value, urgency, and meaning) to answer for your innovation springboard. Sometimes it’s easy to do; sometimes you’ll need help. I call this the “crystal question.” Find it. Here’s how: Summarize critical needs. Prioritize. Identify a change objective in language that has meaning for you. Reframe as a question. No off-site retreat necessary. Grab some paper. Start writing it down now.
  5. Use Only Four Words. You don’t have a lot of time. Find four key words that will crack open your box, unleash the mud, and reveal the grid. Use these four words to frame positive change in the first seven seconds of your call to action with your staff, boss, spouse, or others. An example: For one session, I wanted participants to see their creative power. The four words? “I am a poet.” The word POET then became an acronym for four activities. Whether the four words are a full sentence or four categories of change, you can use this to clarify your strategic innovation plan. The four words also help you make your message consistent when using different media (handouts, spoken word, slides, activities).
  6. 'The Art of Invention' by Steven Paley (ISBN 1616142235) Play More. You’re in the box. You’re in the mess. You have some tools to clear things up. Now you get to work.. .right? Wrong. Now you play. Before you go cleaning up the grid, first play with the mess. If you ignore the mess, the fear remains, more mess will build, and no change will stick. But people hate mess! No one wants to talk about it, much less play. Be creative. Defuse the fear. Find a safe harbor that can stand in for the mess-as simple as a cartoon you use to “hook” your audience or as complex as a structured series of activities around a relevant metaphor. Remember the key: Ground what you use in your crystal question. Above all, practice! You must play with the mess yourself, and then try it with trusted others. Make mistakes and learn from them. Many baskets, many eggs. Find many patterns for change, and activities to purse, since some workers may not respond. Trust your gut instincts and watch your audience. If it isn’t working, do something different. Also, be aware of your own patterns and habits-they can be part of the mess.
  7. Share Your Mess. See learning shift as your participants explore and manage the mess. In-box thinking allows people to use cognitive skills they may not use to solve problemsskills we use when we play.

Model Enthusiasm for Creativity, Support Success

Model Enthusiasm for Creativity, Support Success

Model learning through appreciation. Create respect. Openly express new insights. Praise ideas and new ways to think. Build excitement and commitment. Discover another way to interpret mess: “Model Enthusiasm, Support Success!” Process your mess. Devote time to debrief. Get people to apply their new clarity and ideas at work. Document and prioritize tasks, then act. Co-create responsibility. Hold each other accountable to make the patterns change after you in-box think. Here are some tips for playing in the box:

  • Participants will change your mess.
  • Be open. You can’t predict results.
  • Allow yourself to learn together.
  • Use simple, cheap, accessible stuff-pads and paper, markers, and toys.
  • Your passion can make it work.

Evaluate, celebrate, improve. Get feedback-formal (evaluation forms) and informal (hearsay)-on the change process. Reward yourself and your team for effort.

Congrats. You’re out of the box. Now get back in. Take the lessons you learn to make a better mess next time! The patterns you see, the ways you play, and the successes you stimulate may differ from one change effort to another. The principle remains the same: Use play to think inside your box to see patterns and options in new ways.

Our workplaces, our world, and our future depend on our ability to see and play with patterns in new ways. Luckily, we’re all experts. And, while it’s hard work, it can be a lot of fun.

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Posted in Management and Leadership Mental Models and Psychology

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