Think Leadership Ideas

Edge of the Box Thinking

In a knowledge-driven economy, chances are greater than ever that the value you offer comes from making use of expertise. Conventional wisdom will tell you that you get the best from your expertise by deeper learning your field, by keeping up with new developments and understanding the nuances and intricacies of your domain – in short, investing in knowing more.

If desperate for innovation, what is most any leader likely to say? “Think outside of the box.”

Think about it.

“Out of the Box” is a cliché, a phrase that’s been around for decades. Everyone knows what it means, but it’s hardly a trigger for ideas that are fresh, creative, and original.

If the ‘’box’ is a metaphor for your organization’s experience, ‘out-of-the-box‘ connotes trying to find something that is completely new, totally outside of that experience. It immediately suggests a daunting task, a journey to a complete unknown, a safari. No wonder calls for out-of-the-box thinking are met with resistance. It’s difficult to integrate trips to unknown territory into your regular work, already over-extended – unless of course you are in the safari business.

In helping people to find creative ideas, I encourage people to focus on Edge of the Box thinking – especially if you need ideas with a high potential for useful application.

Edge of the Box thinking is based on viewing the world at the boundaries of your organization and experience, where inside and outside perspectives can be combined, and where fresh ideas most likely will emerge. In today’s knowledge-based world, useful innovation typically arises out of combining core competencies with ideas taken from places outside of your industry or field, but not so far out as to be inaccessible.

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. An 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.

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, however, 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.”

EOB Thinking About How You Run Your Business

Toyota provides a classic example of adopting concepts from another industry. In the post-WWII reconstruction years, Toyota’s executives traveled to the US to get a first-hand view of the automotive industry. They found few surprises in automobile manufacturing, something they already well understood. What captured their fascination, however, were American supermarkets. They were especially intrigued with how supermarkets kept shelves of goods and produce freshly replenished almost as fast as consumers whisked products away. Adopting these principles not only changed how Toyota manufactured automobiles – creating huge gains in quality and profitability leading to Toyota become a world powerhouse – but led to innovations (e.g. lean processing) that are now used across the manufacturing sector.

Thinking about how your business would be run differently by someone from another industry is a great way to generate creative ideas and discover new insights. Disney, in fact, has created a thriving side business of consulting with other businesses to teach them The Disney Way of customer service – in short, how to treat people like guests when they come to your themepark.

EOB Thinking About Who Your Customers Are…or Should Be

Perhaps you can find a market sweet spot by looking just beyond the edge where your industry typically operates. Consider Southwest Airlines, an anomaly of excellent profitability, efficiency, and customer service in an industry suffering on all three counts.

Southwest’s success is not built solely on capturing a share of budget-minded air travelers, but also as an attractive alternative to automobile travel that competes well in terms of economics, time, and relative hassle.

Futurists Ryan Mathews and Watts Wader, in The Deviants Advantage, make a compelling case that tomorrow’s mass markets will come from today’s deviant edge. Free-spirited middle-aged, middle-class weekenders are as likely to buy a Harley as Hells Angels.

Lesson: look beyond the edge and study your non-customers – especially those who are not using any competitor in your industry. Is there something you can offer so they can benefit from your core competencies?

Whether creating new innovations in products or services, structuring your business model, or finding customers and markets – the most likely place to find useful innovation and creative insight is at the edge, where your professional discipline, company boundaries, or industry knowledge intersect with some outside arena or field. You don’t have to journey somewhere far removed from your core, but you do need to get off-center and to the edge. When there, take a thoughtful look at what’s just beyond, and then bring that insight back to your core competency.

You might be surprised how creative, fresh, and valuable your ideas might be at the Edge of the Box.

by Tom Stevens (c)2007
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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