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SmartStorming Thinking Outside the Box What's So Hard About "Thinking Outside the Box?"

In today’s warp-speed, innovation-driven economy, it is a little surprising how often one still hears that well-worn cliché, “We have to think outside the box!”

Or, perhaps not. With so much pressure on organizations to create ever better, faster, more efficient, more cost effective products and services, maybe that elusive area beyond the box is just that much more elusive.

Whatever the case, these words, or variations with similar meaning, still echo the hallways in organizations of every size, in every area of industry, education and government, and at every level of responsibility.

If you asked what makes it so difficult for these organizations to “think outside the box,” chances are you would get an earful about how impossibly challenging it is for people to simply sit down together and effective develop fresh, new ideas.

The typical list of roadblocks range from “We just keep recycling the same old ideas,” “We’ve tried everything before” and “We don’t have the __________ we need to succeed” to “It’s impossible to make bold changes here” and “The boss/our customer will never go for it!” As one listens to the litany of obstacles, one can’t help but imagine that significantly more creative effort is being exerted in reinforcing limitations than in actually seeking innovative solutions.

So what really is the big problem? What core issue underlies the multitude of “good reasons” organizations have so much difficulty thinking like Google or Apple?

Simply, what we believe—pre-existing beliefs and assumptions.

It is our firmly held beliefs about what is or is not possible - what can or cannot be done or achieved - that makes up “the box” that restrains our consciousness and limits our thinking. When perceived limitations loom larger than perceived possibilities, we diminish our ability to solve challenges creatively. In short, we cease being innovators.

Henry Ford, a legendary out-the-box thinker, said it best, “If you think you can do a thing, or can’t do a thing, you are right!” He understood that every self-imposed limitation we imagine or verbalize (and we all have lots of assumptions about a lot of things) creates a mental barrier that separates us from unlimited possibility.

When we simply accept any constraint on what is possible, we trade curiosity for caution, and seek solutions in the familiar, rather than venturing boldly into the unknown. Caution and familiarity are hardly catalysts for innovation.

When we free ourselves from our limiting beliefs, our curiosity flows; we are suddenly able to explore, make new connections and imagine new possibilities that lead to innovative solutions.

We are able to answer the question, “What if…?”

The first step toward liberating yourself and others from limited, boxed-in thinking is to summon the courage to identify and challenge your existing beliefs about a problem.

How to successfully challenge beliefs

1. Make a list of any assumption or limiting belief you or your group may have regarding the issue you are trying to solve.

Be honest—and as thorough as possible. Really dig deep to uncover what you assume to be true. Remember, assumptions often masquerade in the guise of common knowledge, accepted practices and protocols, facts, or even proud tradition. We even harbor assumptions about the way things are, or should to be.

2. Challenge the status quo.

Here’s another inside tip: the more “indisputable” a belief, accepted truth or fact appears, the more important it is to challenge it!  Challenging the status quo creates a rich environment for the seeds of innovation to flourish.

3. Take each item on your list and ask these 3 questions:

  1. “Is this ______(limitation/belief)_____ true?” (Yes/No)
  2. “Is it absolutely true, all the time, without exception?” (Yes/No)
  3. “If it’s not absolutely true, what are the possibilities?”

Make this “reality check” technique for questioning your pre-existing beliefs a regular part of your brainstorming or idea-generation process. You will be amazed to find that most, if not all, perceived limitations will quickly dissolve under the analysis of objective discernment.

As each limiting belief falls away, more and more new blue-sky possibilities will begin to emerge. Before you know it, that proverbial box that once restrained your imagination will have disappeared.