Please, Don’t Think Outside the Box.
If there were a museum, full of these expressions that we have overused, it would be written next to a sad cardboard box, right next to a world map on which we could read Carpe Diem.
More and more industries understand the potential of creative thinking to reinvent their business model and remain relevant in the current environment. The difficulty with creativity is that it is much less academic and less well understood. There is no recipe for achieving something universally considered creative. It sometimes becomes difficult to know what its relevance is, how to apply it and, above all, what is really considered creative or not. How can we say that an idea is really off the beaten track? It is becoming difficult to carry out a comprehensive audit of the “markets of ideas”.
It is in this context that the famous expression is born: you have to think outside the box.
But, as simplistic as these questions may seem: what is the box? What is considered outside? And what’s in it?
As a creative writer working in an agency, I feel pressure every time I sit at my desk, wondering how I will manage to generate a creative product with each demand. And even though we think that carte blanche is often an exciting playground, it is horrifying to me. The absence of constraint is much more frightening than stimulating.
I think that this pressure (and a great way to get rid of it, by the way) is best illustrated by Elizabeth Gilbert in her excellent TED Talk about her life after “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Anyway, I hate wilderness trails. It seems to me that this is the perfect place to get lost and go in circles. That’s why I try, with my teams and our customers, never to walk there.
But refusing the absence of constraint does not solve the solution in itself. It is also necessary to find a way to provide a functional framework in each and every situation, in order to start a creative project with a method, regardless of the nature of the project.
Then I came across Luc de Brabandere. A Belgian mathematician, now developing a speciality called corporate philosophy. And more precisely, on one of his theories that seems to me to be the most interesting: Thinking Inside New Boxes.
Corporate philosophy : Theory used to determine how a business handles different areas of operation. How a company is formed and operates in areas such as accounting, management, training, public relations, marketing and business operations.
The mathematician told that the process of reflection began when a company manager for whom he worked asked him what “the box” was in the expression “thinking outside the box”. Unable to give a meaningful answer, he would have decided to stop professional practice to take the necessary time to generate a response. It is in this process that he came up with a theory that approaches the issue from a whole new angle.
The main idea is quite simple: instead of rushing away from everything we know in order to create, we should simply change the basic context in which we create. Play with a few parameters without refusing all the constraints. Set clear limits that stimulate new creative approaches.
But there is no better way to understand the method than to try it. What are the 10 first words to come to mind when you think of a clock ?
My list: Hours, minutes, seconds, hours, day, arrows, watch, clock, alarm and radio. It’s pretty obvious. We can consider these as basic ideas that everyone can have.
Now make 20 more, and consider this new list of 30 as the “standard context” in which someone would describe a clock. Even if this test were offered to people from different backgrounds, we can assume that many of these words would be listed. They are simply common knowledge.
Now, if you had to repeat the exercise and describe a clock without using any of these 30 words, what would you do? Now you see, you are quickly coming closer to a new context. Perhaps you will think of “The Invisible Hand on Our Existence” or “Fractions of Life” (something less spooky is also good). It is still a new, much less traditional way of describing the same old clock.
When Luc de Brabandere, at one of his conferences, asked the question “what is an exemple of a car?”, the public obviously began to name brands like Toyota or Mercedes. And then, simply by asking instead “a car is an example of?” he completely changed the nature of the answers. They have moved towards things like transport, pollution, technology and innovation…. Simply moving the pieces of the puzzle quickly led everyone to explore other lexical fields and interpretations.
It therefore becomes interesting to develop this reflex. At the beginning of the project, or during a brainstorming session, start by quickly listing what is in the common realm. Let everyone participate and fill out a board with all these basic concepts. It is only once they have been identified, and used as a constraint, that you will begin to visit less explored territories. In this way, you started from a box A that everyone knew well, made a list of what it contained and gradually migrated towards a new box, much easier to understand but much more interesting.
When you accept to place yourself in new contexts, you end up understanding things as a whole, and that’s where new ideas and innovative connections emerge. So the next time you need to generate new ideas, start by listing the old ones, and simply prevent yourself from going to them again. Build the frame that everyone would build, put it aside, then build a new one and explore.
That’s why I have completely changed my mind about brainstorming. I don’t think a successful brainstorm is a meeting at which a new concept suddenly arises. Rather, a successful brainstorm is a meeting at which an existing concept suddenly makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.
- Luc de Brabandere