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Liz Ryan Headshot

What Does "Out of the Box Thinking" Really Mean?

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It's such a cliche -- "I need someone who thinks out of the box." You hear it all the time. What does it mean? What's out of the box thinking anyway, and what's so great about it?

Let's think about the box, first, and then let's figure out how and whether to climb out of it. What is the box that people are always talking about? The box is a frame, the traditional way of thinking about a problem. In business, we are very good at in the box thinking because business is structured around the box, aka the Standard Operating Procedure. "Here are the facts, here's the problem. Let's look at solutions A, B and C and pick the best one." That's in the box thinking. It's a break/fix model, and it's not known for generating radically new or interesting solutions to vexing problems.

The irony is that people are very creative animals. We could be tons more innovative than we are, if we'd just acknowledge the fact that traditional American business isn't based on the idea of solving complex problems in clever ways. Rather, it's based on the idea that somewhere in the distant past, someone smarter than you sat down and developed a protocol and a procedure for nearly every imaginable scenario. The procedures are all written down somewhere or stored in the minds of the company managers, and it's your job to find the policy or the manager who has the info, and do whatever the book or the manager tell you to do. That's the business frame, in a nutshell.

Getting out of the box means shifting the frame. Let's say that you're facing a problem at work. You're the sales 0perations manager, and it's your job to make sure that everything about the order-taking and order-placing process goes smoothly. The sales reps rely on you to make sure their orders get filled. This week, sales are brisk, and you've only got 400 units of a popular product in the warehouse. Your top sales guy calls in to say he's just sold 600 units of that popular item, but the units have to be delivered to the customer site on Monday, just a few days out.

You call the warehouse and they don't pick up their phone, so you text the warehouse manager and beg him to save the last 400 inventory units for the incoming big order. You call the supplier to see what's coming down the pipeline: the next order of the product you need won't be ready for another week. This is turning in a crisis: your sales guy is going to be 200 units short and the customer is going to go ballistic.

The in the box playbook says "Well, it's too bad, but the sales guy should have checked inventory with me before he committed to deliver 600 units." It's certainly not your fault that inventory is low; this product has never sold at this volume, not even when it was first launched a year ago. The in the box answer is unsatisfying, but it's easy. We go into the box so often in part because it's so effortless to go there -- we certainly know where the box is. In the box solutions aren't exciting, but people don't get fired for finding them, either.

Staying inside the box in our example, you wouldn't overcome the obstacle or save the day for your customer, but you'd chalk up the experience and move on. That's what most people would do in this situation, and that's why most people are in the box problem-solvers. ("What do you want from me? I got the order, I checked with the warehouse, I checked with the supplier -- it's just one of those things. No one even told me that we were pitching a 600-unit order, or I would have had more time to plan for it.")

Once we climb outside the box, all sorts of possible solutions emerge. Here are a few of them:

This product has been selling for awhile. Undoubtedly there are units sitting on shelves in other customers' warehouses right now. Could you check with the rest of the sales team to see which customers might actually be happy to sell 200 units back to you -- or loan them to you for a week?

You could call the salesperson who placed the 600-piece order, and talk with him about the customer's plans for the units they've just ordered. The sales guy asked for all 600 units to be delivered on Monday, but is there really an immediate need for all of them? Could you, your sales guy, your supplier and the customer's Purchasing folks figure out a delivery schedule that gets the extra 200 units to the customer in plenty of time for whatever they're planning?

The supplier told you that your next big shipment isn't due for a week. But the supplier doesn't know about the big order your sales guy just placed. If you filled in your supplier on what's going on at your end, he could get out of his own box ("Your order will be ready in a week") and get creative to help you. Could he divert another order, maybe from a customer who doesn't need the units as badly as you do, to get you the extra 200 units on Monday?

Getting out of our mental boxes is partly a matter of effort -- of going beyond the most obvious answer, in this case "Oh well, too bad." Getting out of the box means sticking with the problem longer, and looking at it from various sides. In the business world, we learn gazillions of procedures and policies. We start to think that the processes are real, and very important -- that they have some fundamental purpose apart from giving everybody the same playbook and keeping the work chugging along. We can start to elevate processes and policies to heroic status. That's the last thing we should do! Processes are put in place to make things simpler, but they also make it easy to turn our brains off.

We know we can function reasonably well with our brains turned off or, more likely, engaged elsewhere -- think of all the interesting mental journeys you take while driving! You can set your brain to half-power and still get through the day at most jobs without much trouble -- staying in the box.

I was a corporate HR chief for eons, and when tech recruiting heated up every few years, headhunters would plague us with fishing calls to our employees. They'd call Donna at the front desk and try to weasel their way into conversations with our R & D guys.

"Yeah, there's a guy named Mike, or Mark, I forget -- I met him at a party and I took his sunglasses by mistake," they'd say, lamely and transparently broadcasting their headhunting activities. Donna was going out of her mind trying to do her regular job and field the headhunter-barrage at the same time. "At this point, I'm practically asking for a blood test and a social security number, just to put a call through," she said. "I don't like to be a switchboard Nazi, but I also don't want headhunters calling in here and talking to our guys about changing jobs all day long."

I didn't want to pay our brilliant telephone receptionist to play bar bouncer to headhunters. We talked about the problem at an HR staff meeting. Is it our job to screen calls intended for our employees? As Donna said, we don't want to make our receptionists call-screening bad guys. What test of legitimacy should be required before a receptionist puts a call through?

We don't want our guys harassed by headhunters, but then again, our guys are adults. Do we want to be in the business of deciding what sorts of calls they should take and not take at work? Doesn't the prospect of doing that get very creepy, very fast? Are we going to start asking callers to prove they aren't headhunters?

We realized that when employees talk to search people on the phone, both positive and negative things (for the company and for our employees) can happen. Our employees could hear about appealing job openings elsewhere. We'd be seriously bummed if they quit. But if there are appealing job opportunities elsewhere, wouldn't we be smart to learn more about them?

Then it hit us, an answer straight outta the box. We put a bounty on headhunter calls, and we promoted the bounty and the game plan to our employees. "Make a few bucks the next time a search guy calls!" said our flyers and lunchroom table tents. We paid twenty-five bucks per call (today, I'd make it fifty, at least). We only asked our folks to note the name of the search guy, the name of the hiring employer, the role being filled, the project being pursued and the salary range.

Eureka! Within a month, we'd paid out a few hundred bucks and learned a huge amount about the local hiring landscape. We integrated the info gleaned from our employees' notes on their headhunter chats and organized what we were learning by company. We built organizational charts for our most formidable competitors for talent, and stuck them on the walls like the Mafia family charts the FBI develops.

The headhunters supplied all the information we gathered, during their calls with our employees. In one case, the guy calling into our company was a guy who was filling jobs for us at the same time (and whose contract, needless to say, prohibited him from doing just what he was doing. "Hey, even a great company isn't a lifetime thing," he said in his own defense to no avail when I called to cut him loose.)

We told our folks, half in jest, "If you take the job the headhunter called about, you have to return the $25." No one ever took any of those jobs, as far as we knew; it was more fun to keep the current job, take the twenty-five bucks and gather the info. Some of the guys got into it in a big way. I'd see them on the phone, asking "Now, what's the code name for that product again?" I'm sure there were search people in Chicago who wondered why guys who had formerly been lukewarm about taking their calls were suddenly avid collaborators.

All of a sudden, the headhunter calls that had been hush-hush and furtive came out in the open. We took the headhunting energy directed at yanking guys out of our shop, and turned it into a recruiting and intelligence-gathering advantage for our company.

Out-of-the-box thinking in your organization doesn't require people to rewire their brains or take courses in creativity, although those courses sound like fun. To think outside the box, you only need to ask "Is there another way to think about this?"