Female looking into box

Get back in your box

Stop searching for the silver bullet solution to your problem

Written by Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Female looking into box

"We need to think outside the box,” is one of the more common cliches in organisations struggling to solve a problem with traditional methods.

It’s also one of the most infuriating cliches because the chances of it being correct are extremely low and the original problem that led to this phrase wasn’t even a box, it began with nine dots.

Let’s start by explaining the nine dots issue.

The original brain teaser had three rows of three dots. To solve the problem you were asked to join the nine dots by using four straight lines without lifting your pen off the page. One solution to the puzzle was to extend your lines beyond the boundary (or box) formed by the dots. This solution has morphed into the phrase, “thinking outside the box.”

The sentiment behind the idea of thinking outside the box is understandable. We have a tricky problem to solve with a solution that is not immediately obvious, so we need to think differently from normal for a solution to emerge.

However, unless the problem (and the solution) is so novel, unique and has never been seen before, why could we imagine it would be easy to come up with a solution that was also novel, unique and never seen before? There’s a sense of blind hope that a silver bullet solution is waiting to be revealed.

The counter to this position is the often-quoted saying attributed to Einstein that “It is the definition of stupidity to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result”.

Rather than repeat past mistakes, outside-the-box thinking may result in new possibilities and the potential for new or better results.

The two key problems with this approach are it assumes that all the currently known options have been explored and that we have been comprehensive with the implementation of the current options. In most organisations, neither of these assumptions is true.

What’s the attraction of outside the box?

There appears to be something attractive and slightly romantic about being outside the box. Creative thinkers and innovators are greatly admired.

Just saying you’re “thinking outside the box” immediately gives your reputation a boost. You are seen as innovative, capable of learning new tricks and open to new possibilities.

There is also the perception that you are hard-working because you’re going the extra mile to look for alternatives. The reality is that it’s more likely a sign of laziness, as it’s much easier to explore new options than it is to recommit to the hard grind of improving existing practices.

The advantages of thinking inside the box?

The first advantage of looking inside is that you know the systems and processes intimately. It would be rare that your current practices can’t be improved as generally, few are working at their optimum level.

Confronting the reality, tackling known issues that have been allowed to fester and working with people you know, are all opportunities that offer potential for significant improvements.

Secondly, inside the box contains the low-hanging fruit – small changes and improvements that can be implemented easily and quickly.

Thirdly, the discipline of having a comprehensive look inside first will build a culture of rigour that will benefit decision-making throughout the organisation.

Finally, it’s just more likely the implementable solution to your problem will be known by someone inside your organisation, rather than by some anonymous person, somewhere outside your organisation.

The challenge for leaders is how to encourage their staff to leverage their own experience and deep knowledge within the organisation to solve the problems and challenges that arise, whilst at the same time, not stifling creativity or innovative thinking.

What’s important here is the order in which this thinking is carried out. Rather than defaulting to the popular outside-of-the-box thinking mindset, it is far better in the first instance to focus inside, where the current skills, knowledge and expertise reside.

Only once the internal expertise has been exhausted, is it time to venture outside the nine dots and look for another way.