Thinking Outside The Box 10 Comments

The most overused and abused phrase in workplace terminology is “thinking outside the box.” Over 13 million results show up in a Google search. If you really think about it…what does “thinking outside the box” mean? When you dissect the phrase, some interesting ideas emerge.

For example:

  • What’s inside the box? I once read on a Starbucks cup a quote from Dave Grusin that said, “In my career, I’ve found that ‘thinking outside the box’ works better if I know what’s inside the box.” It’s so true. I assume inside the box refers to those expected corporate activities, the sacred cows and the traditions of the organization. Some could say what’s inside the box is basically corporate culture. As managers and leaders, it’s our role to support and educate employees about corporate culture. I wonder if there comes a time when it’s also our role to help shape a new culture (i.e. build a new box). This is really interesting because there’s a school of thought that human resources is the keeper of corporate culture. Maybe the real drivers of corporate culture are the employees…

  • How big is *this* box? If you’re a new company, does this mean that the box is smaller because you have less history? Logically, a smaller company could be less risk-adverse and more apt to “think outside the box.” Then, as the organization grows the “box” becomes bigger. This leads into a discussion about company agility. Meaning the bigger the company, the larger the box and harder it is to change ways of thinking.
  • And what does “outside the box” look like? If inside the box is considered the norm, then logic says outside the box is probably pretty darned radical. As a general rule, I haven’t found that the average person thrives on radical change. That’s why we have so much change management training. We have to constantly support individual efforts to embrace change. Because if people don’t like change then chances are they aren’t thinking about making change.
  • Lastly, even if we think and act “outside the box” aren’t we, by definition, just creating another box? Sure, it may be a much nicer box, but a box just the same. Then, how do we know when we need to start thinking outside of *that* box?

The bottom line is there’s no such thing as thinking outside the box. At best, we think to the edges of the box. Some people might peek over the side of the box, say it looks scary out there and stay safely inside. Why? Because they’re afraid to be considered a failure. In the corporate world, failure is not perceived as normal behavior.

Companies that really want to succeed in this world should educate and support unconventional thinking, be willing to try new stuff and support “failure.” To really change the world, we have to quit using clichés like “we need to think outside the box” and start saying “we need to be comfortable with perceived failure.”


Let’s embrace the words of Thomas Alva Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This post was written by Sharlyn Lauby for the Talent Buzz blog post contest.  Sharlyn Lauby, SPHR, CPLP is the voice of HR Bartender, a friendly place to discuss workplace issues. When she’s not bartending, Sharlyn is president of Internal Talent Management (ITM) which specializes in employee training and human resources consulting. Her off-hours are spent searching for the best hamburger on the planet, fabulous wine that cost less than $10 bottle and exotic martinis.

About Jason Buss

Talent HQ’s creator and editor is Recruiting & Diversity Leader, Jason Buss. Talent HQ is a premier online news and information channel for the Recruiting and Human Resources community.

  • Posted on: Sunday, March 1st, 2009