Outside the box

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“Thinking outside the box”

“I’m an outside-the-box thinker”

Most of us have heard those phrases or variations thereof. It’s one of those empty clichés you see on CVs, alongside other meaningless bullshit like a ‘well-rounded character’ in 20-year-olds – whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Aside from being an empty buzzword, what does thinking outside the box actually mean? It basically means leaving well-trodden paths when approaching a problem. Most people like to see themselves as creative problem solvers, while – as a matter of fact – they really aren’t.
Solving problems in a novel way is hard and in a way it’s bound to failure: Truly novel and creative solution by definition haven’t been tried out yet. They’re an experiment that lacks proof, a venture that’s more likely to fail than to succeed.

There’s a reason why some paths are well-trodden: They are proven. Many business environments – especially corporate ones – are risk-averse in trying to minimize potential for failure. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” (or Oracle, or Microsoft for that matter) is a well-known saying in the enterprise software business. It subsumes why the incumbents in this market are so successful although their software more often than not is of dismal quality and their smaller – but not so well-known – competitors offer vastly superior solutions.
Buying IBM is the safe thing to do. Sure, the software might be slow and terrible to use and it likely will need huge customizations to roughly work as expected but hey: It’s the industry standard. Who can blame you for sticking to that?

Thinking outside the box isn’t a quality you can simply turn on or learn. It needs to be nurtured by your environment in order to fully develop. Forget about ‘Failure is no option’. Embrace failure. Learn from it. Experiment. Fail. Try again. Succeed. It’s only in environments that allow for failure and encourage people to try approaches which are not likely to succeed that outside-the-box thinking can thrive.

To give you an example of what I consider to be true outside-the-box thinking have a look at this OXO measuring cup. Kitchen measuring cups aren’t exactly what one would consider an exciting market opportunity. Most products are alike, the problem of how to measure quantities of food in the kitchen appeared to have been solved for decades. However, when thinking about the process of measuring stuff it becomes clear that this solution was far from optimal:

  1. Pour stuff into cup.
  2. Hold it at eye level to read the scale.
  3. Realize you’ve put in too much or too little.
  4. Iterate …

Adding a slanted scale to the cup that can be easily read from above allows you to do away with steps 2 to 4. Now, this is what I call outside-of-the-box thinking that solves a real world problem in a novel way.

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