It is one of those key-event memories we all have. We recall exactly when and where we were, even when decades have passed.
It was 1987, our small team was called to a meeting with our boss’s boss on the 5th floor of our 6-floor company headquarters in San Bruno, California. He was a newly hired executive so he gathered (one of) his fledgling departments to tell us how important it was to organize and import the merchandise from our hundreds of apparel factories around the world, spread out in dozens of countries, flow the millions of pieces by sea, air, and truck into our mammoth distribution centers in the USA, then ship coordinated collections out to our thousand-plus retail stores so that the goods were received by all the outlets on the same day, at roughly the same time. We had to do this as efficient, and cheap, as possible. We are talking about competitively-priced fashion apparel, with a shelf-life less than that of most food products.
He looked at each of us in the eyes and told us we had to “think outside the box.” It was the first time I heard the phrase. I was mesmerized by the concept. He said that thinking outside the box involved a paradigm shift. Wow, I thought, I was just relegated to being a box thinker. And being that I had to look up the word paradigm, not knowing it was something that could be shifted, my head actually started feeling smaller (“was the shift already happening?”, I thought).
Since then, I’ve heard the metaphor hundreds of times, as I’m sure most have. Actually, after three decades, I imagined it had worn itself out, but then I heard the tired analogy used twice over the last week.
Supposedly, the phrase came from the nine-dot connection puzzle, where the challenge is to connect the dots in a square using four strokes or less, without lifting the pen or retracing lines. Spoiler: It takes going outside the box.
What that executive was telling us years ago was not to be relegated to conventional thinking. OK, that’s nice. After all, our thoughts come from our perspectives and like the cranial lobe on our necks, everyone has one. And everyone’s perspective is as unique as their head. But perspectives, by definition, are limited. Fortunately, they are not as rigid as our cranial cavity. Like a box, when our spheres of reference are open, our capacity increases.
What the box-thinking concept helped me recognize is that there are lots of boxes holding lots of different things and that it’s ok if our box can’t hold many of those things. Maybe we don’t want them in our box. Further, if we recognize that other boxes rightfully hold things different from ours, then there is no need to be bothered by other boxes, or the things in those boxes. Rather the opposite is true, by appreciating the notion that each box holds something unique, a fluid collaboration materializes if and when the boxes are open.
In other words, it’s may not be necessary to think outside our heads, or stand on them and look at the world upside-down to connect the dots or stretch thought (although that may help). We can expand creative thought, increase tolerance, reduce drama, and generally improve our ‘niceness-to-others quotient,’ not by trying too hard to shift a paradigm, but by simply being open. But if it helps to try and think outside the box, then hey, thank goodness for the box.