The Value of Thinking Inside the Box

We’ve all heard the phrase before: Think Outside the Box. It’s very likely we’ve encouraged our team members and colleagues to do it, and have probably tried or desired to do so ourselves. After all, thinking outside the box means thinking creatively, innovatively. It means coming up with a new idea or concept that has never been done before. It means creating a product or solution that has never been developed before. And of course this new idea or concept, product or solution is going to completely disrupt whatever established conventions currently exist. Because that’s what “Thinking Outside the Box” does, it’s what it’s designed to do.

But if you think about it, this quest to think “outside the box” actually spawns some pretty interesting questions and thoughts to consider. The first question would be, have those who want to think outside the box completely leveraged? And do they know everything that exists inside the box? Because in order for any outside-the-box idea or concept to be of value, it has to be useful, and in order for it to be useful, it has to go above and beyond what is already known, and that’s all the stuff that’s inside the box. I’ll be the first to admit it: I often think about “thinking outside the box” myself. But, if each time, I were to ask myself if I’ve looked in all the corners and little crevices of the box, and have I thoroughly leveraged everything in there first? I would have to say no, not even close. And if there are several things inside the box that I haven’t done, haven’t tried and haven’t fully deployed, maybe, just maybe, there might be a disruptive earth-shattering idea that can move my firm’s business forward or open new markets that exists right under my nose.

Another interesting consideration are the unintended consequences that can potentially result when attempting to think outside the box. When a team is asked to think outside the box, the hope is for big ideas to be generated. But what can sometimes occur (and oftentimes does) is that misaligned ideas are generated instead. Now these can certainly be really good ideas and very creative ideas, it just that these can also be ideas that do not necessarily connect to or support the business’ strategy, vision, or pathway forward. This occurs because the instructive to simply think “outside the box” is just way too vague. It’s too ambiguous and doesn’t provide enough structure. And when the team leader says to remember that there are no bad ideas and that nothing is off the table, although well-intended, it can unfortunately serve to further exacerbate the problem of unfocused, undisciplined ideation.

Believe me, I’m not all poo-pooing the idea of thinking outside the box, nor am I saying that it’s best to only think inside the usual box that’s connected to one’s business. What I am saying however is, don’t overlook or diminish the value of thinking inside that usual box as well though. And just as important, don’t overlook or diminish the value of introducing a whole new box altogether and doing some thinking within that one when looking for a big idea.

Today’s SUV market is a fine example of US automakers thinking inside the box. When SUVs first entered the market, minivans were dominate, pickup trucks were on a steep rise and station wagons were in decline. US automakers were looking for a way to keep car buyers for whom a station wagon wasn’t viable, a minivan wasn’t desirable, and a pickup truck wasn’t practical, from leaving their brands for imports. While people liked the rugged-capability, styling and active-lifestyle that pickup trucks portrayed, they also wanted the utility of a minivan, and preferred the car-like comfort, ride and handling that station wagons provided. The question grappled with was: how to create a vehicle that had the styling and image attributes of a truck, the roominess of a minivan, and the car-like feel of a station wagon? US Automakers looked inside their box and looked to the attributes of the three vehicle categories that were in there and decided to simply merge them to create a whole new category – the SUV market. Had auto teams simply been asked to blankly develop a new vehicle category and simply been told to just think outside the box and that no idea was too crazy, who knows what we might be driving today.

Again, the thought here is not to that thinking outside the box is bad and should be avoided, it’s that there is tremendous value in thinking inside the box as well.

At Black Rhino Marketing Group, we pride ourselves on thinking inside, outside, above, below, and around the box. And we also believe in getting rid of the box altogether and creating a brand new one whenever necessary.