“Be creative! Be original!… Think outside the box!”
Whether these are phrases said in a meeting about branding strategy or over a glass of wine, these pearls of wisdom hold a strange influence over our lives. They’re undeniably attractive. It’s as if these lines have gravity.
I think it’s because they help us simplify and streamline otherwise complex situations.
But are these manufactured pre-packaged “catch phrases” helping us? They might help some of us. They might add the magic touch to your otherwise boring team speech. But when you’re discussing where to take your brand or how to use your marketing budget, these lines almost imperceptibly drive our thinking toward certain patterns and conclusions that are not necessarily helpful. I’m of course not judging anyone. I’ll be the first to admit that I myself have used phrases like these.
In my view, these half-truths streamline and simplify usually rather complex situations with suggestions that may or may not make sense. Moreover, they close viable lines of inquiries and meaningful concerns with answers that sound good, but aren’t necessarily helpful. They short-circuit our thinking, and are a poor replacement for ingredients which require a far more meaningful exploration of the facts, of the history, the context, the constraints and the problems involved.
To think outside the box literally means to explore ideas that are unusual and that are not limited or controlled by rules, restrictions or tradition. But is this really the case? Are we not limited by guides and laws in life and business alike?
When brainstorming ideas to improve your business, thinking outside the box doesn’t always help.
Encouraging people to go wild and think outside the box only goes so far. People who work in businesses are usually a lot more used to thinking inside the box because they live with constraints all the time and are most used to decision-making in a context with limited resources. Secondly, most people are just not very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming. Lastly, by inviting someone to think you’re not giving anywhere near enough direction to make sure that the flashy ideas are also the right ones. For this reason, many fail to generate a stream of solid ideas when they aren’t given specific guidelines, constraints and boundaries.
In Business, as in life we operate within guides, rules and limitations. We have boxes. People need boxes.
A healthy approach finds a good balance between boundless speculation and concrete limitations. Ideation thrives when people can anchor their train of thought of clear constraints, conditions and objectives because this makes a basis for making and comparing choices.When you systematically constrain the scope of your thinking (but not too much), people find it easier to generate good, actionable ideas. Setting the right constraints is a matter of asking the right kinds of questions: Questions that help you define boundaries and create ‘boxes’ that are useful, but different, from the boxes your people currently think in.
So the real challenge here is not to roam and think outside of the box… it’s really about understanding what the box is. The better we understand the limitations, the restrictions and the boundaries, the easier it is to generate good, actionable ideas.
“I don’t think outside the box I think of what I can do with the box.”
– Henri Matisse.
Depending on what your objective is, questions that mark the point of departure for your brainstorming session can be: What’s the biggest problem your company is facing? How much money can the company afford to spend on fixing this problem? How soon do you need a payback? What kind of payback are you looking for? How does your customer spend their time? How does your worker spend their time? What do they appreciate, and what’s something they complain about? What level of staffing is the company willing to commit?
Once you have a good answer, ask another question that extracts more information, and keep going. Sometimes it’s better to ask the right questions than to give the cool-sounding pearls of wisdom. Asking the right questions takes time and setting the correct boundaries takes time, but that’s what creativity is actually about.
The common misconception about creativity is that it often occurs as a sort of lightning strike of inspiration or a moment of genius. But in fact creativity is like most other things, the more creative you want to be, the more hard work you need to put in, or as Winston Churchill once dryly quipped “It takes an age to prepare my impromptu remarks”.
Over many decades, a vast body of scientific literature has shown, using a comprehensive range of methodologies, that the technique of systematic observation, measurement, experiment, and then the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses, produces far more robust results than chasing after entirely spontaneous ideas.
In the next article, I’ll explore how we can use this understanding when thinking about your brand and your marketing strategy.