Think Leadership Ideas

Edge of the Box Thinking

EOB Edge of the Box Thinking with Tom Stevens

I hear it again and again, an executive admonishing a team to “think outside of the box.”

What is intended, of course, is inspiration to “think creatively” - the problem I have is that it’s an un-inspiring, un-creative, and un-encouraging way to say it. In fact, it can be darned right unproductive.

Think about it.

Cliché is the antithesis of creativity, and “out of the box” is as cliché as it comes. Everyone knows what it means, but it’s hardly a trigger for ideas that are fresh, creative, and original.

In ways subtle and profound, our brains respond to metaphors. Language matters. As a leader, you want to tap all the power of language you can - or at least remove unintended thinking barriers to achieving the outcomes of your endeavor.

If a ‘’box’ is a metaphor for your experience, then ‘out-of-the-box‘ suggests trying to discover something new and totally outside of that experience. The trouble is that thinking about things outside of your experience is pretty much impossible. Asking someone to think outside the box is like asking them to list unforeseeable events. (We can acknowledge that unforeseeable events are likely, but that’s a different matter from foreseeing them.)

What’s a better metaphor for creativity and innovation? “Edge of the Box” thinking – especially if you need ideas with a high potential for useful application.

Here’s why it’s a better metaphor….the most likely place to find useful innovation and creative insight is at the edge, the places where your professional discipline, company boundaries, or industry knowledge intersect with an another discipline, arena or field of knowledge. You don’t have to exit your experience, but you do need to get off-center and to the edge. At the edges you can take a thoughtful look at your endeavor from an alternative perspective, and then bring that insight back to your core competency.

Established conventions and ways of thinking create “associative barriers” that inhibit innovative thinking in any given field of endeavor. The perspective of another field or industry does not carry the same thinking conventions and associations. Innovation happens most where fields cross, at what Frans Johansson, in The Medici Effect, calls the intersection. “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures,” he writes, “you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.”

Architect Mick Pearce designed the celebrated Eastgate Centre, in Zimbabwe, a shopping and office building that uses only 10% of the energy required for heating and cooling by conventional buildings. In addition to his training in architecture, Pearce had an interest in the amazing structures produced in nature. His remarkable innovations making this energy savings possible arose from the study of how termites keep their mounds at a constant temperature of 87° despite their locations in harsh environments.

Anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, helped create major innovations in the field of Family and Marriage Therapy in the 1970’s by suggesting the use of one-way mirrors to observe counseling sessions – something that that would never have occurred to clinicians but made obvious sense to an anthropologist.

Whether you are seeking innovations in products or services, structuring your business model, engaging customers, or expanding your markets – you might be surprised how creative, fresh, and valuable your ideas might be at the edge of the box.

Edge of the Box Thinking - at Think Leadership Ideas

Leadership Idea Language matters - metaphors drive our thinking: avoid out of the box, think edge of the box.

by Tom Stevens © 2007, 2013
Tom Stevens helps leaders enhance edge of the box thinking for their organizations. To contact him, visit

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