According to legend there is a magical place where all ideas are good and creative. This place is easy to reach, many know the secret and are happy to tell you how to get there in brightly lit rooms on Thursday afternoons.
“We need ideas and we need them now”, everyone nods in agreement, they know it’s business time. And so the fellowship sets on its journey to this mythical Valhalla of ideas…
“Thank you all for coming, I know you’re busy with your own projects but I invited you to brainstorm with our team today. I expect creativity, and I really want you to think outside the box on this one.”
And so it begins, a journey to The Outside Of The Box: a place of infinite creativity.
Out of the box
As you might have derived from the introduction, I really, really, dislike the expression ‘outside the box’. Just a minor irritation is caused by how it’s often mistakenly referred to as ‘out of the box‘. Out of the box means, as Wikipedia cleverly informs us, ‘something ready made’ or ‘off the shelf’:
Items, functionalities, or features provided out of the box are those that do not require any additional installations, plug-ins, expansion packs, or products. In addition to being used for tangible products, the phrase is often used in a less literal sense for software, which may not be distributed in an actual box but offer certain functions “out of the box,” e.g. without modification.
Just plug it in and ‘go’. It’s already been completely designed, tested and is ready to use. Needless to say that is not what people intend to say – they mean ‘creative thinking’, ‘divergent thinking’ or ideation, the process of generating many, unconventional ideas. Clearly the plug and play reference really undermines that intent.
But more significantly is my problem with how the expression undermines your brainstorm from the word go. The ‘fellowship’ as described in the introduction face a major problem for effective ideation from just those three words…
Outside ‘the box’
In order to understand the expression and the problem within, first we need to know where this mysterious box even comes from.
It is said ‘the box’ is derived from a simple puzzles that is used in training unconventional thinking. The subject is presented with a three by three grid of dots, and is asked to connect all dots with four straight lines, without the pen leaving the paper.
The puzzle is solved however, by going ‘outside the box’, moving the pen to points not part of the grid (or ‘box’) and connecting all nine dots.The box is the mental model that is formed by the grid, a container which causes the subject to make assumptions and obey the conventions of the square space.
More commonly though, ‘the box’ is simply seen as a clearly defined ‘space’, a metaphor for the office or the teams ‘comfort zone’ where one has to get out of in order to generate original and relevant ideas.
Burning the box
The effect of instructing people to ‘think outside this box’ is deadly for your process of ideation. A brainstorm facilitator should stimulate divergent thinking, and ‘the boundary of the box’ is doing exactly the opposite. This abstract of a box, where ideas either go in our out (and out being good) encourages people to evaluate and judge their ideas. Worst case openly whether an idea is in or out, but also quietly, not sure if your box has the same boundaries as the other participants boxes.
Bottomline result: less ideas and the quality of ideation diminishes, and with that the true power of brainstorming: Connecting a variety of ideas – of which some could possibly come from ‘within the box’, or someones personal ‘box’ – his own comfort zone.
The ideas that come from within these ‘boxes’ are not bad or uncreative per definition, they are simply unfinished. As will any other idea generated in the process of brainstorming. They get polished and evaluated outside the brainstorm, or at least outside the process of creating the sheer volume of ideas to work with. Become a concept where other ideas could spring from, or get discarded with the original but irrelevant ‘outside the box’ ideas.
‘The box’ effectively discourages the free flow of ideas – the essential part of a brainstorm and the most determining factor of its success.