I feel slightly reluctant to challenge the much used creativity/innovation mantra “think outside the box” as I’m sure it has helped many people to break habits and disturb the status quo. In fact, I think it is something I probably used to say regularly. However, on an almost daily basis, I find the phrase more and more problematic but at the same time encounter more and more people who are saying it in the hope that it will encourage others to become more creative and innovative. The main, obvious problem is the fact that “the box” does not exist! It is a metaphor! Fair enough, it is a helpful metaphor but it is a metaphor none-the-less and one that we seem to have used so much that we now unconsciously respond to it as if it were real! As the jazz improviser and professor of Organisational Behaviour Frank Barrett suggests, “human beings have a habit of turning metaphor into geometry” and I fear the helpful metaphor of “the box” has fallen into the trap that Frank warns of. Rather than use the metaphor as a way of disturbing our habitual thinking, many people seem to try to tackle the challenge it presents in a physical, geometric way as if there really were a physical cardboard boundary surrounding us with creative ideas lurking just outside. I find that in the rather literal and overly-mechanistic corporate world, the box metaphor tends to result in something that proves rather problematic to any creative process….effort!
So, I suspect there are two reasons why I have come to worry when this metaphor is used. One is that we often forget it is a metaphor, the other is that the metaphor itself seems to be flawed, at least when it is applied to creativity. Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that we don’t really need to put any extra effort into becoming more creative as it is a of a process of relaxing and letting go that we need to engage in. Therefore, in the metaphorical world I don’t believe we need to think outside the box as we already have everything we could possibly need to unleash a more creative version of ourselves inside it – we simply need to look again! As the great Gestalt Psychologist Arnie Beisser suggests in his Paradoxical Theory of Change – we get more change by becoming more aware of what we already are rather than by striving to become something we are not. (My own paraphrasing of Arnie’s far more eloquent words). I believe that everything we could possibly need to unleash a more creative version of ourselves is embedded in the present moment – we just need to get better at noticing it which requires less effort, not more. We need to try less and strive to be more obvious, more average and far less original – a somewhat paradoxical way of thinking that I learnt from the legendary Keith Johnstone. This process of becoming more creatively awake is about letting go, noticing more and using everything (to borrow Rob Poynton’s lovely model for a moment.) If we are continually exerting effort to try and think outside of a metaphorical box then this becomes rather difficult. If we are to use the box metaphor to encourage creativity, I think it is far more helpful to say “look again inside and see what you haven’t yet noticed.”
And, if you don’t find anything in the metaphorical box then look again. And again. And again. If you still can’t find anything then look from a different angle, look through the eyes of somebody else or invite others to help you – what you seek will be hidden there somewhere. In the same way that a curious mind can “see the world in a grain of sand” (William Blake) everything and anything we need to be more creative is embedded in this moment we call NOW.
We just need to put a lot less effort into it all!
Hi Steve, really interesting to consider the concept and role of “the box” in our thinking on thinking creatively. I wonder if this is also connected to people’s belief in their ability to be creative, which seems to be quite polarised. I never meet anyone who says “I’m just a little bit creative”, it’s either a big yes, or not at all. And it seems to be a real belief that comes from childhood, and maybe linked to success in certain school subjects in some way.
I also find that restrictions and limitations are powerful forces in driving creativity, and maybe “thinking inside the box” is another way of creating that limitation which lets people relax and not be overwhelmed by the endless possibilities of a restriction free, blank sheet of paper, world.
Great post Steve.
Gregor has quite a point with this, which is what you propose with different words. Thanks for enriching the post. 🙂
Maybe “thinking inside the box” is another way of creating that limitation which lets people relax and not be overwhelmed by the endless possibilities of a restriction free, blank sheet of paper.
Regards from Bilbao.
Ola Álvaro, thanks for your comment. I like your idea of the metaphor helping people to not be overwhelmed by the infinite creative possibilities. For me, constraint is very important in this work but it is equally as important that the constrain is varied. Constraint should be like alive and moving like a heartbeat – contracting at some points, expanding at other points. That’s the artful part of this work and, from what I can work out, it is impossible to guarantee getting it right so all one can do is experiment.
Hi Gregor, thanks for the comments and the “yes, and” to the ideas. The splitting you talk about is everywhere in the corporate world – something is one thing or another. This means the shades of grey and rich amorphous, ambiguous middle ground is rarely explored.
I agree about the power of constraint in this work and reversing the “box” metaphor causes a different type of constraint that can help get people unstuck. It is, however, still a metaphor and overusing it too much will probably be just as problematic as thinking outside of it!