Policies Keeping Us Thinking Inside the Box
by Sloan Campbell

We have all uttered or at the very least heard the phrase "Rules are made to be broken !" during our day-to-day business endeavours probably in the last thirty minutes. Though the idea may not be exactly proper, the philosophy is right on target.

Rules or policies of some sort have been present in our lives since the beginning of time, starting with the 10 Commandments right up to the present day Corporate Governance of major corporations around the world.

It is not so much that there are different interpretations of corporate policies depending on who you are or that most policies are confusing and devoid of common sense, we all understand that. What really bothers me is the black & white manner to which many policies are regimentally followed ultimately resulting in an overall lack of creativity in today's business developments.

If business partnerships in the current global marketplace are designed to be based on creativity, communication and teamwork, why is it not logical to believe that the rules, which govern such unions, would be used as 'guidelines' and not the 'regulations' to which all must blindly adhere, no matter what? It is logical! The problem is that we have been conditioned to follow the policies as good corporate citizens, and not to play outside the box when dealing with customers.

Thinking inside the box means accepting the status quo, like Charles H. Duell, Director of the US Patent Office, saying, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." That was in 1899: clearly he was in the box!1

In-the-box thinkers find it difficult to recognize the quality of an idea. An idea is an idea. A solution is a solution. In fact, they can be quite pigheaded when it comes to valuing an idea. They rarely decide to invest time to turn a mediocre solution into a great solution. 2

Add corporate policies to the mix, and in-the-box thinkers will stop at a status quo business solution because venturing beyond might be in conflict of said policies. By the time it is determined whether or not these policies have been violated, a possible opportunity has been lost.

Thinking outside the box requires different attributes that include:

  • Willingness to take new perspectives to one's day-to-day work;

  • Openness to do different things and to do things differently;

  • Focusing on the value of finding new ideas and acting on them;

  • Striving to create value in new ways;

  • Listening to others;

  • Supporting and respecting others when they come up with new ideas. 3

Out-of-the box thinking requires openness to new ways of seeing the world and a willingness to explore. Out-of-the box thinkers know that new ideas need nurturing and support. They also know that having an idea is good but acting on it is more important. Results are what count. 4

Out-of-the-box thinkers will use the rules as guidelines and the sky is the limit to their creation of business solutions, being innovative, pushing the limits of the corporate polices with creativity. This is not being a bad corporate citizen.

Let's try a quick exercise in thought, to illustrate how conditioned we are to status quo and thinking in-the-box

Insert dot image

Instructions: Draw this simple box of dots on your own little scrap of paper and begin with these simple instructions:

  • The idea is to connect the dots with lines, but only four lines will do.

  • Position your pencil on one of the dots and do not allow the pencil to come off the paper, that is, do not pick up the pencil and start from another place in the box. It must be a continuous flow of writing once you start.

Think outside the Box! (the answer will be provided at the end of the article).

This simple example illustrates the creative solutions that are possible when you are not constrained, by regulations, in the solution of a problem. In order to become an out-of-the-box thinker you (or your organization) really need to master three fundamental thought processes: motivation, expertise/knowledge and creative thinking skill or the capacity for creativity. Success in this arena is linked to your ability to develop an awareness of articulated and unarticulated customer needs, looking deeply and insightfully into customer needs to discover what drives behaviour and motivation, thinking flexibly about current and future business and with the suspension of business boundaries (i.e. corporate policies). 6

Out-of-the-box thinking is in no way a new concept, but it is often the first to be abandoned when organizations are struggling and do not use the long-term view to drive short term planning.

I will leave you with a short quote from Albert Einstein about the importance of thinking creatively:

"It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty" Einstein, 1949

Enough said.


Insert dot image2


1. Outside the Box; http://www.canadaone.com/ezine/april02/out_of_the_box_thinking.html

2. Outside the Box; Ibid

3. Outside the Box; Ibid

4. Outside the Box; Ibid

5. Thought Exercise: http://www.sangraal.com/library/outside_the_box.htm

6. Customer Inspired Innovation Presentation; Ronald Kubinski, APQC (American Productivity & Quality Center) - 1999 (45 pages)

Sloan Campbell is a Program Manager at ELCAN Optical Technologies. ELCAN Optical Technologies (ELCAN) is a world photonics leader specializing in the design and manufacture of complex, precision opto-mechanical and electro-optical systems and subsystems for projection display, medical, industrial, automotive, defence, entertainment and telecommunications markets. You can e-mail your comments to the author at scampbell@elcan.com .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership II in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Sloan Campbell. All rights reserved.

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