JargonJungle: Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside box is not an airy-fairy affair that means just looking at the blue sky.

This article was first published on bloncampus.com http://www.bloncampus.com/columns/jargon-jungle/use-the-right-box-for-innovation/article8756314.ece in my fortnightly columns titled ‘Jargon Jungle”

“Think innovatively outside the box,” he exhorted his colleagues. Clearly, Chetan was in a hurry. The team leader ran a brainstorming session to come up with ideas for a new app, that would help his company engage better with its customers.

But while he casually threw around the words, in his hurry, he overlooked the fact that innovating isn’t very different from thinking outside the box. Perhaps he wanted to place a ‘double’ emphasis.

Whatever his reason, the world seems to be placing increasingly greater emphasis on ‘thinking outside the box’ or innovation. This kind of thinking also enables one to use cutting-edge technologies innovatively in solutions such as remote patient care or student-centred learning.

Know your ‘boxes’

The most popular method of ‘thinking outside the box’ is by running a brainstorming session. But what really happens in a typical session? Consider Chetan’s group as one ‘box’ and their conference room as another box.

People in a group put a limit on what can be said or thought. To understand this, simply observe what happens if one of the team members walks in late or someone from another group is called in. You will notice a shift in the conversation. This change is more evident when a boss walks in or leaves the room.

There are other invisible ‘boxes’ that restrict our thought process — an individual, a team, a department, company, markets, social and cultural practices, and ignorance of technology, among others. However, we aren’t all that conscious of such boxes.

A conference room, through its familiar walls, posters, pictures and even window blinds, cues us to a familiar thinking pattern, due to its sameness and familiarity. You notice this only when you get out of it.

Without being aware of various ‘boxes’, it is impossible to think outside them.

A big enough box

While ‘thinking outside the box’ needs a box that is big enough, one must ensure that it isn’t too big. Let me illustrate this.

Too big a box for Chetan’s group would be thinking in the context of a totally different business model or a totally different technology platform. If ideas are not feasible, the brainstorming sessions are bound to be useless. It is important to find out more about the ‘big box’ before you start jumping outside the smaller ones. You can start by asking questions like:

~ How would I define the aim or the problem more clearly? (How is customer engagement measured?)

~ How much time do you have to show results? (When is the app needed?)

~ How much of a budget do you have?

Perhaps you can start the session with a discussion on the Big Box definition. The above questions will lead to more questions, which will in turn help in productive thinking.

Demolishing small boxes

Having defined the Big Box, you have start demolishing the smaller boxes. Here’s how you can do that.

Set a different perspective; ask people to play a customer and watch what happens; use a tool like Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, which helps people leave their personal boxes aside and think without inhibition.

Another powerful tool is to devote some time to only asking questions. Avoid spending time in answering them initially.

Here are some questions that can be asked in Chetan’s group: ‘Why would customers want to be engaged with us?’, ‘What will they get through engagement?’, ‘What will we get through it all?’, ‘What is meant by engagement?’ and so on.

No walk in the park

They say innovation or creativity is fun. This may be true for some who genuinely enjoy it. Or it could be also because of the way it is portrayed — companies like Alphabet or Apple make it appear fun. It is certainly cool to be a designer or an engineer who creates something new that gets talked about.

But while the outcome of thinking outside box is exciting and fun, the creative process itself isn’t a walk in the park. It is like sweating and gasping through a hard climb to find the exhilarating breeze at the peak. Not everyone enjoys the climb; some may find it too daunting.

Thinking outside box is not an airy-fairy affair that means just looking at the blue sky. You have to set up conditions, painstakingly navigate many questions, and rigorously harvest discussions.

Thinking outside the box needs a big box, some rough rules of moving about, and someone who leads the project with clear goals, flexibility of tools, and the tenacity of a trekker — someone who considers pattern-busting thoughts a reward in itself.

 -Hemant Karandikar
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