Why you can’t think outside the box

Have you ever been told to think outside the box? I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a planning meeting with an over-enthusiastic yet uninspired Boss and have heard the dreaded phrase “Team, I want you to think outside the box”. This tired cliché is often rolled out in corporate planning meetings, product launches and conferences. Usually it is thrown at you when your boss is receiving pressure to stand out from the crowd and has no idea how to do that. Let’s get one thing straight. – you can not think outside of your own box.

The metaphorical box that is so flippantly referred to represents the space or world within which you operate. This world contains the sum of your ideas and limits how you think. It is called a box because it visually implies that your thinking, and consequently your ideas, are bounded. It implies that there is an artificial limitation to your thinking. In a manner this is true. All of your experiences, education and attitudes frame the world, or box, within which you operate. If your world is framed by you, how is it possible for you to think outside of yourself? You can’t because any thought or idea that you may have, by definition, resides in the box that you operate in. You can’t think outside of your own box.

But the volume of the box is different for every person and is not constant. As you gain new experiences, your framework also grows. Metaphorically the sides of the box become more pliable and larger, thus creating more volume within which you can operate. Hopefully this is not an unfamiliar experience to you. I have certainly found that my approach to a problem changes dramatically over time or after significant experiences. Interestingly, a greater variety of experiences has made it easier to grow. Conversely, if you only have a small number of experiences your world view will be similarly small. The boundaries are also constantly reinforced every time you have the same experience. Thus the box loses the very flexibility that allows growth. You see this often in people who demonstrate small minded thinking. These people are restricted to very few strongly held beliefs that are unlikely to ever change. Small minded thinking is the right term because they are restricted in their experience and consequently their ‘box’ becomes stifling.

You know that your experiences differ from the person next to you. You also know that these experiences frame your world and thus the volume of the space within which you operate. Similarly the variety and quantity of experiences also determine the rigidness of the sides. By asking you to think outside the box, your boss is really asking you to think outside the organisational experience or their own personal experience. This is only possible when you either have a different set of experiences to the organisational norm or you grow. You grow through the collection of a greater variety of experiences (or education), read widely and expand your own operating volume until it either exceeds the requirement or offsets it.

You can’t think outside your own box, but you can make it bigger.

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