Think out of the Box. Act in the Box.


Her: So, what do you do?

Me: I help companies to think out of the box and act in the box.

Her: Oh, we don’t believe there is a box.

Me: There is always a box.

This is a summary of a few conversations that I have had recently. It usually continued with me explaining what I meant, but it was only on a short train journey yesterday evening that I got the chance to think it through logically. Hence this blog.


What is the Box?

When we talk about thinking outside the box, we mean moving away from the constraints that restrict our creativity. These constraints come from two main sources.

·        Real constraints such as availability of finance, resource restrictions, or the laws of physics.

·        Imagined constraints that come from the assumptions we make that prevent us from thinking more widely. E.g. “I’m not good at that”, “They won’t let us”, “That is not physically possible”.

Whether real or imagined, these constraints form the box in which we typically look for problem solutions.


Why “Think Out of the Box”?

If we only look for ideas which fit within the constraints, we limit the our range of ideas. We need to put aside both the real and imagined constraints so that we can consider as wide a range of solutions as possible. By putting the constraints aside and asking, “What if…?”, we can awaken our creativity and find more radical ideas. E.g. when looking at a material handling problem, we could say “What if there was no gravity?” This would lead to ideas that would not normally arise.


Why “Act in the Box”?

The simple fact is that gravity does exist. In order to implement any of the ideas, we would need to abolish gravity, or modify the idea so that it delivers the same benefits in the presence of gravity. This is an extreme example, but the same principle applies to many of the other constraints. If the constraint is real before ideation, it will be real after ideation. Some of the constraints will have turned out to be imagined so the shape of the box may have changed, but there is still a box.


The Challenge

The challenge is to re-shape the idea to fit the box without losing the benefits the “out of the box” idea will deliver. The key to meeting this challenge is the word “benefits”. When we try to implement an idea, we are encouraged to use the Kipling questions – who, what, when, where, why and how. Unfortunately, too often we focus on who, what, when, where and how. The why gets forgotten. However, the why is the most important thing.

The idea has been selected for implementation because of the benefits it will deliver. As we try to bring the idea back into the box, we need to ensure that this benefit is not lost. To do that, we need to consider the constraints (real or imagined) that define the shape of the box and adjust the idea to fit. In other words, we do not pretend that the box does not exist. We recognise that it does, and we change the idea accordingly – but without losing the benefits it delivers.



There are several approaches to this re-shaping of the idea, but by far the most effective I have found is the 3 Hats tools. I have described this in detail in a previous blog, so I will only give a summary here.


3 Hats

The 3 Hats tool looks at the idea from three viewpoints:

1.      Why should we implement this idea? What are the benefits it delivers?

2.      What will prevent us from implementing the idea? What shape is the box?

3.      How can we change the idea to get rid of the constraints without losing the benefits? How do we re-shape the idea to fit the box?

Once we have answered question 3, we go back to question 1 with the modified idea. We go around this cycle several times, until we have a viable solution.


An Example.

A few years ago, I was asked to work with a team that was trying to reduce utilities cost (electricity, steam, compressed air etc.) on an old manufacturing site. Towards the end of the ideation part of the workshop, one of the team vented his frustration by saying “Why don’t we just blow the site up, claim on the insurance and build a new factory?” On the whole, it was felt that this was probably not a viable option. Apart from the ethical and legal considerations, they would have been left without a factory for a considerable period. However, after 30 minutes with the 3 Hats tool, the idea evolved into “Design a state-of-the-art plant for a green field site. Compare the design with the current site and find ways to transfer the efficiency benefits to the existing site.” This led to a set of detailed options that resulted in a six-figure annual cost saving.



If we ignore the box it doesn’t go away. Yes, we need to be creative in finding ideas, but we also need to recognise that it is the benefit that the idea delivers that is important. If we need to change the idea to get the benefit, then we change it. Think out of the Box. Act in the Box.



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