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June 5, 2009

“Think outside the box,” has become an over-used, if not downright trite expression of exaperation with status quo thinking and so-called conventional wisdom.  Those who advocate innovative or strategic thinking, if that’s what they actually mean, which is sometimes difficult to discern, often provide little or no guidance about how to improve the current situation.

I prefer to describe the process a little differently.  The notice, “This product is sold by weight not volume; contents may settle during handling,” is familiar to most of us.  This phenomenon is not restricted to cereal boxes or potato chip bags, and often takes place inside organizations that become too settled.

Most of the stuff we put inside boxes is there to either organize it or to protect it in some way.  That means we usually consider the stuff inside the box valuable to us.  If that’s true, then we need to think about the box as well as what’s inside it.  This often does not occur to most of those who advocate outside-the-box-thinking.

Getting outside the box provides us with the advantage of being in a position to survey its contents from all six sides.  If the contents appear to have settled, the box provides us with a vehicle for shaking up the contents a bit so we can put some air or space between the objects inside.  This can help us discern more about their qualities individually as well as collectively, so long as we don’t shake the box so hard that we break what’s inside.

Changing our orientation is not about looking beyond the walls of the box, but rather about reorienting ourselves so we can gain a different perspective on what’s inside.  Getting on the outside also gives us the opportunity to survey the conditions the box protects the contents against.

From this vantage point we can learn whether or not the organization or protection provided has exceeded that warranted by the conditions.  If that’s not the case, opening the package may be all that’s really required to gain a strategic advantage or to jump-start innovation.

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