In a strip from the beloved comic ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, Calvin is working on a crossword puzzle and tells Hobbes, “Number three across says ‘bird’”. While Hobbes is thinking, Calvin exclaims, “I’ve got it! Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!” Hobbes points out that “there are only five boxes” to which Calvin responds, “I know. These idiots make you write real small.” Proving once again that a picture is worth a thousand words, the transcription attempts to describe how the three simple drawings illustrate conflicting aspects of ‘thinking outside the box’.
On the one hand, we celebrate the ‘out of the box’ thinkers. We assign status to those that are creative thinkers; those that view the world from unique perspectives; those that create products that we didn’t even know we needed and now can’t live without; those that develop solutions not bound by the constraints of traditional inside-the-box thinking. We admire their results and encourage everyone around us to turn their backs on the ‘box’.
On the other hand, the ‘box’ is a framework defining the parameters of business requirements and resources. It can also be thought of as the road-map taking us from the known point A to the desired point B. Calvin’s creative, out-of-the-box, answer to his crossword clue pretty much guarantees that the puzzle will not be completed as designed. In a business environment, uncontrolled out-of-the-box thinking loses sight of organizational goals and, at best, results in competing initiatives and, at worst, results in chaos. Projects at any point on the spectrum will likely be costly and wasteful.
Building a better box is the concept of balancing the structure that the ‘box’ provides with the culture that encourages out-of-the-box thinking. Some functional area, such as packing and shipping stuff in a box, require the process be highly structured and only allow opportunities for creativity when dealing with exceptions. Other areas, such as product development, marketing and advertising require a more elastic version of the ‘box’, allowing out-of-the-box creativity loosely constrained by parameters that support organizational objectives.
Building a better box is developing processes and policies that make sense for the organization and allows for creative thinking where appropriate. The important thing is to not choose either in-the-box or out-of-the-box thinking exclusively, but to embrace elements of both to achieve the balance of structure and creativity that works best.
Note – The Crossword comic strip described above could not legally be reproduced in this piece. Per Universal Uclick, due to licensing agreements, Calvin and Hobbes cartoons cannot be used in any electronic media.