Think Inside the Box

InTheMiddleMedium  Thinking outside of the box is an often heard cliche within corporations trying to solve a problem.  The request to think outside of the box usually occurs around the time of desperation.  Every potential solution attempted to date has failed.  Now we need something new.  Different.  Radical.

The Problem

The issue of trying to solve a problem with outside of the box thinking is that doing so rarely leads to pragmatic, applicable ideas.

It’s cruel to sit staff down, tell them about a problem, and then ask for outside of the box solutions.

It doesn’t work.

It’s too broad and none of your seasoned staff really believes thinking outside of the box will lead to anything a corporation will adopt.  Simply having the knowledge that a new and different idea will be rejected constrains them.  And for your younger employees, if they put their energy into thinking outside of the box and nothing changes, you will successfully kill morale.

A Solution

Instead, focus on thinking inside of the box when you gather a group to tackle a problem.  The box is generally made up of four constraints: specification, time, money, and tradition.  Your problem is inside the box.  That’s where you, or your team, should focus: inside the box of constraints.


Thinking Inside the Box


  • What problem are we solving?
  • Is this a one time shot or can we implement a small change and build from there?
  • How do we measure our success or failure?


  • Surely you have a deadline.  If not, you won’t be taken seriously.
  • Does this problem go to the top of everyone’s list?  Or is one person going to own it and have to rely on the spare time of others?
  • Everyone is understaffed and over worked.  Your request will fall to the bottom of the list if you don’t provide a deadline.


  • Can any money be spent?
  • If there’s a budget, how much?  And is that the real budget or the target budget?
  • Is it CAPEX or expense? If CAPEX, make sure the TIME portion ties with your company’s CAPEX process.


  • We can think of some cool stuff, but is the corporate culture/governance/existing process/IT system really allowed to be changed?
  • How much change can we handle?
  • Who is going to champion our efforts to make sure the proposal is fully supported?

An Example

My first corporate request to think outside of the box happened when I was about 26.  We were a fairly large company with about $250 million in annual sales.  The CEO asked me to find three ways to cut unnecessary costs as a proactive exercise.  After a week of combing through divisional P&Ls and asking lots of questions, I came up with three that we could eliminate to save about $500,000 in annual costs: cut out the monthly snack allowance, cancel the company car program for a few people and stop buying desk calendars.  The snack budget was about $2,000 per month.  We spent several hundred thousand on vehicles annually for staff who never traveled and did not entertain customers.  And we discarded about 40% of the desk calendars.

I was berated for my suggestions.

First, if we cut out snacks, morale will drop because people are used to them and they will assume the company is having financial problems.

Second, I was told to never mention the auto policy again. Period.

Third, the person who had the calendar contract was close friends with the CEO.


Three strikes and several lessons learned.  Of course it would have been nice to know the sacred cows on the front end of my endeavor.  But my biggest problem was I didn’t know what questions to ask the CEO.  I was too excited to show what I could do and failed to ask the right questions.  Look at the box again.  That’s where I should have started.


It was my first realization that we do live with constraints and you can never truly think outside of the box.  Corporations expect results that lead to positive bottom line impact.  Reduce costs.  Increase sales.  Cash flow the business and grow the bottom line.  These results are tied to constraints.  Accept the constraints.  Maximize your ability to produce by working within the constraints better than anyone else.  This will help your company and your career grow.

Despite this experience I am also guilty of gathering smart people into a room, announcing a problem, and then asking for outside of the box solutions.  It never worked.  Not once.  People would offer some great ideas, but most of the ideas fell outside of what we were allowed to do given the four sides of the box.

In fact, I consistently witnessed fewer ideas when I placed no limits on the group.  However, when I established the limits, the ideas developed.  I would like to claim that each time I gave the constraints we had a flood of ideas.  But that’s not the case.  Most of the time the ideas trickled out, dried up a bit, sputtered and then finally started flowing.  Suddenly, the ideas would stop.  That’s important to notice.  Don’t force people to keep thinking.  Allow them to stop and let them return to their normal jobs.  It’s up to you to grab the best of what’s been offered and move ahead.

Why Constraints Work

Providing constraints gives people two things they need: guidelines and a challenge.  Some people like the structure constraints provide while others enjoy the challenge of overcoming an issue despite constraints.

When you establish the constrains expect resistance.  Why does this constraint exist?  Is there any room to budge?  Allow this to happen within your group.  Once the constraints are accepted, your group will rise to the occasion and creatively think within the boundaries of your box: specification, time, money, and tradition.

Remember, when ideas stop flowing it is your job to take the ideas, select one, and move ahead.

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