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Think Outside the Box. King of the Overused and Under-Explained.  

April 7, 2021

Think outside the box. Of the many overused phrases that have taken the spotlight in the business world, this was reigning champion for some time. Also, in my opinion, the most despised champion of overused phrases!

I’m not just going against the grain or rebelling against conformity here; there are important reasons to consider why this is true.

First off, frequently using ANY phrase without context alienates those who aren’t familiar with “the language”. There are too many times when leaders grab on to a buzzword and begin using it in every meeting they attend. There is a cultural pressure to jump on the bandwagon and start mimicking the speech. However, those who aren’t familiar feel like they have landed on an uncharted planet, like they missed a critical meeting that covered the intended buzzwords for the fiscal year and their appropriate use.

I too have experienced the setback of the overused, under-explained phrase. A few years ago, I planned an off-site development session for my leadership team. This was always one of my favourite times of the year. As a team, we would align on a leadership competency to develop and review some key initiatives for the coming year. One year, we had the privilege of a senior leader in the organization joining us. His travel schedule lined up and we took the opportunity to involve him in the session. Ahead of time, he asked me what topic would benefit the team. We agreed on strategic thinking—taking a longer-term view on operational goals rather than the default reactive approach. Once the session began, he thought he would change things. Perhaps he wasn’t prepared, perhaps he saw trends in the operational teams as he travelled that gave him a new focus.

Now I’m an agenda man. I believe that structure is important to set expectations and prepare for quality, actionable learning. Imagine my surprise when he opened with, “We’re actually going to talk about thinking outside of the box.”

Admittedly, this wasn’t a disastrous pivot. I was surprised, but I was interested. However, after 30 minutes, neither myself or my team knew what we were discussing and nothing actionable came from the session. So, what happened when volume increased, and the team needed to meet the demand? A lot of thinking inside the box.

This only strengthened my resolve against the term, and I would inwardly scoff at its every use. I would be certain to NEVER use the phrase.

But what if you could actually learn HOW to think outside of the box? What if the phrase actually meant something? If it could be proven I would gladly convert!

As it turns out, innovation skills and systems are designed for just that! Outside the box thinking means “divergent”, not the typical patterns or typical solutions.

There are an array of stimulating tools and exercises that can be facilitated that take us off the beaten path of our synapses and create unique ways of solving problems or generating ideas.

Explaining the meaning of outside the box thinking and showing others how to do it, unlocks potential, and empowers the intended result.

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