The Six Sides of the So-Called Box

Unless you've been in a coma for the past 20 years, I'm sure you're familiar with the phrase "get out of the box." It's everywhere. Like news of Syria. Or styrofoam. Whole industries have sprung up around it, including mine.

No one in their right mind (or is it left mind?) can deny that getting out of the box is a good thing. Seems like a no-brainer, eh? Kind of like helping little old ladies cross the street or flossing.

But before you start planning your heroic escape from it, answer me this:

What the heck is the box?

What is this so-called thing that keeps us so contained, confined, caged, trapped, contorted, claustrophobic, and otherwise unable to succeed?

Let's start with the basics. A box has six sides, including the top and the bottom. If we can understand what these six sides are, we'll begin to get a leg up on what we're dealing with -- and our newly acquired leg-upped-ness will improve our chances of getting out of the box. Or, as Fritz Perls put it so succinctly, "Awareness cures."


1. Fear: If you want to increase the odds of being trapped in a box for the rest of your life, all you need to do is increase the amount of fear you feel. Fear inhibits. Fear paralyzes. Fear subverts. Indeed, when fear rules the day, even reacting is difficult to do. Fear not only puts us in the box, it makes it almost impossible to get out.

Fear of what?

Fear of judgment. Fear of failure. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being revealed to be an impostor. Fear of this. Fear of that. Fear of the other thing, too.

Do you think it's an accident that management guru, Peter Drucker, declared fear to be the #1 obstacle to innovation?

Fear sucks. And precisely what it sucks is the life right out of you. There is no box without fear. Get rid of fear and you get rid of the box.

2. Powerlessness: Powerlessness is a state of mind in which people think they have no choice -- that they are victims of circumstance, that the act of attempting anything new is futile.

It's why Dilbert has become the patron saint of most cubicle dwellers.

Some in-the-box people have dwelled in the state of powerlessness for their entire life, going all the way back to childhood, overpowered (or disempowered) by parents, schools, shopping malls, boogeymen, and who knows what else.

If you work in a corporation, you've seen this powerlessness paradigm in spades -- as the powers-that-be don't always take kindly to the ideas, input, and grumblings of the "rank and file."

If you're feeling powerless, not only are you in the box, it's highly unlikely you'll be able to muster the energy, intention, or sense of urgency to get out of it. Screw powerlessness. You are not powerless. You are powerful. And if the company you work for, doesn't get it, find another job -- or start your own company.

3. Isolation: A box is usually small and confining. Rarely is there room for more than one person it it. The result? Isolation -- with no one to talk to, no one to bounce ideas off of, and no one to collaborate with.

Is it any surprise that solitary confinement is the biggest punishment most societies dole out -- second only to the death sentence? Being cut off from the tribe has been a very effective behavior modification technique for eons. When you're in the box, that's exactly what's happening.

And while your isolation may give you a momentary sense of much-needed privacy and relief from the judgment of others, it's fool's gold. Sitting in the dark, cut off from everyone else, vision obscured -- is not exactly a formula generating breakthrough results.

4. Assumptions: Assumptions are the guesses we make based on our subjective interpretation of reality. They are short cuts. False beliefs. Lines drawn in the sand.

We end up taking things for granted because we are either too lazy to get down to the root of things or are too entranced by our own thoughts to consider alternatives.

Ultimately, it's our assumptions that shape our world. The world is the screen and we are the projector, seeing only what we project -- which is all too often merely a function of the assumptions we've made.

Or, as one wise pundit put it, "When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees our pockets."

Bottom line, we see what we are primed to see. Change your assumptions and you change the world -- starting with your own.

5. Mental Clutter: If you find yourself in the box, it would be fair to say that the box contains you. But what do you contain?

If you are like most people in today's over-caffeinated, hyper-kinetic, information overloaded world the answer is simple: too much.

With the amount of information doubling every few years, most of us have way too much on our minds. We have no time for musing. No time for pondering. No time for reflecting. No time for incubating or making new connections -- behaviors essential to out-of-the-box thinking.

Driven by the short-term, we grab onto the first seemingly "right idea" that comes our way -- or else desperately try to declutter our minds with an endless array of mindless distractions that only increase the amount of clutter we eventually need to process. Ouch.

6. Narrow Mindedness: When you're in a box, it's hard to see. Sight lines are limited. Vision is obscured. You become shortsighted. Vision conforms to that which confines it. You become, soon enough, narrow-minded.

I'm sure you know a few people like this. Their ability to see beyond their immediate surroundings is almost non-existent.

When this kind of phenomenon becomes institutionalized, we end up with a bad case of "next quarter syndrome" -- especially in organizations ruled by the need to constantly please profit-seeking shareholders.

Few people are thinking six months out. Less are thinking 12 months out. And almost no one is thinking five years out. Everyone is trapped by the short-term.

What we call "focus" becomes a euphemism for tunnel vision -- just another form of narrow-mindedness that makes getting out of the box about as likely as credit card companies rescinding their usurious late payment fees.

OK. That's it for now. I hope I've not depressed you. That isn't my purpose. Neither is it my purpose to obsess about the "problem." But until we know what we're dealing with, all this hot talk about innovation and "getting out of the box" is just hype and a complete waste of time. Kapish?

Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, a management consulting company, specializing in organizational innovation and individual creativity. Most people think he is out of the box. Some people think he is out of mind. But it really doesn't matter what people think. It matters what YOU think. Not about him. About yourself and the many opportunities before you would benefit from a fresh, out-of-the-box approach.