The Innovation Box

The Innovation BoxIf you stick around innovation practice and theory long enough, you’ll hear the “box” mentioned many times. Clients want their teams to think “outside the box”. People are criticized for any ideas that are “inside the box”. Consultants and industry thinkers will talk about the value of the box and whether the team needs to be “in the box” or “out of the box” in order to succeed.

The challenge with this discussion of the box is that it confuses means and outcomes. The “box”, as we’ve come to define it, represents the context, framework, perspectives and timeframes within which people are comfortable. When an executive wants his or her team to “think outside the box” he or she wants new ideas, which requires the team to put aside their existing culture, context, resource and time constraints, and adopt, at least for a moment, a new context that has less constraints. In other words, get out of the box of their current culture, thinking, perspectives and attitudes, and take on new attitudes, risk tolerances and expectations, at least for a short time.

There are a least three problems with this demand:

  1. The effervescent, short term nature of the expectation
  2. No preparation or training is provided to help the team achieve that new state
  3. The executive and the rest of the organization remains in the “old” box

Let’s look at each of these issues quickly.

Short term-ism

For the last thirty years, our businesses have built efficient performance engines based on reducing variability, risk and uncertainty. Training and skill development has focused on doing things according to defined methods. Reward structures are based on achieving short term milestones, avoiding risk and achieving forecasts. Suddenly, out of the blue, an executive asks his team to put all of that aside and think very differently. Even more to the point, the team should put aside their old thinking, their old perspectives only momentarily, to get “out of the box” to create some new ideas.

How does an individual steeped in corporate expectations and cultures “get out of the box” for just a moment? The short timeframes don’t allow for significant change, and most teams know that as soon as they have finished what they’ve been asked to do they’ll slip right back into the old perspectives. It takes a lot of energy to shift from one perspective to another. It’s often easier just to pretend to put on a new perspective, rather than to fully embrace a new perspective, so many teams never leave the old “box”.

Further, the teams attempting to “think outside the box” are constantly confronted by their “old box”. Most of these teams work in their same offices, meet in the same conference rooms and hold the same full time jobs. When, exactly, are they supposed to get out of the box when they are constantly confronted with the “box” of short term demands. How can a team be creative in its same space? Einstein defined insanity as doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. Corporate innovation teams are often the definition of insanity.


To “get out of the box” teams need to reinvigorate skills that have gone dormant, or perhaps learn new skills that aren’t valued in the regular day to day work. It’s not easy taking off the old ways of thinking that govern the ideas people generate. These teams need time, motivation and especially preparation. They need more tools, more techniques and more creativity. One does not simply levitate from the box, one must work mightily to get out of the box, at the risk of discovering a completely new set of perspectives. Will you be able to keep them in Peoria once they’ve seen the big city? If teams come fully “out of the box” can they ever really return? Isn’t that a risk as well?

To get teams out of the box requires more than a simple request. Teams are confronting years of training, tools, methodologies and experiences. They need new tools and ways of thinking. They need new creativity sparkers. They need new facilitation and leadership. Thinking out of the box doesn’t happen overnight. It requires investments.

Two tracks

But perhaps the biggest issue with “thinking out of the box” is that now there are two parallel tracks in your business – the team that has managed to achieve the thinking you’ve requested, and the rest of the organization stuck in the old ways of thinking. These are like two trains on parallel tracks, never destined to meet. If a team actually achieves the thinking you hope for, the ideas they create will be so different, so disruptive and divisive that the rest of the organization, comfortable and safe in the old box, will reject them out of hand. There’s simply no way to connect and accept these new ideas into the old organization, the old “box”.  Either the box changes or the ideas change. It’s that simple.

Teams that attempt to get out of the box recognize this. They have three options: create truly interesting ideas that the old teams in the old box must reject, or recognize the gap issue and create incremental ideas that fail the executive’s request but which can be accepted into the old box, or find completely new ways to commercialize interesting new ideas. Since everyone is rewarded on success, no matter how miniscule, we always settle for incremental ideas that can be implemented, rather than risky ideas the old organization can reject.

Thinking outside of the box

What does it take to get a team to think outside the box? More transition time, to help the team make the transition from the old box to the new box. More training, new tools and new facilitation to help the team become proficient at the new work. More time and commitment to taking on new perspectives. A commitment to shift not only a small team, but the rest of the organization, to new perspectives and a new “box”, or a new method to commercialize the ideas the old organization will simply reject. Until and unless executives are willing to countenance these investments, asking for ideas “outside the box” is a cynical exercise at best.

image credit: smallbiztrends

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

Jeffrey Phillips




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No Comments

  1. César Padilla on September 11, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Great post Jeffrey. I think that “thinking outside the box” initiatives should definitely be thought out and planned carefully before being implemented or you risk alienating or demotivating your staff. If you have seen one of these projects or short term pushes for “quick innovation” fail, you are much less likely to participate enthusiastically in another one in the future.

  2. Guido Beyss on September 24, 2013 at 4:23 am

    Easier said than done!

    The phrase „thinking out of the box“ itself is complex. Every human being has grown up in a certain framework like family, school and education, even generally embedded in a cultural area. This is the framework of each person, but very much individually. This creates the framework or box of each of us.

    By grouping several individual people, the framework or box is more solid, if the people are having same routes in experiences and cultural background. It is well known that by putting e.g. same age people of a certain region with same background and interests together, the team is more homogeneous and stronger regarding their thinking than a very much heterogeneous team, which is far more fragile at the beginning. “Thinking out of the box” means: leave your routes! This is much easier for a heterogeneous team than for a homogeneous one. (

    Nevertheless, there is the problem that each new innovative experience of the group becomes an experience itself and therefore part of the box; a wider box now, but still part of the box.

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