Why Thinking Outside of the Box is Overrated

It first occurred to me that thinking outside of the box was an overrated skill during a job interview. The job applicant had an excellent education, but was more than a little green. When asked why he was qualified for the job, he replied triumphantly, “Because I can think outside of the box!” He then went on in great detail to explain what our company was doing wrong, and how we could reorganize things and take the world by storm.

As I listened to him prattle on, I thought of the many restrictions we worked under. Some were government regulations. Some were market realities. Some involved company policies that were well above my own pay grade to influence or change. Some were budgetary. Many involved practical logistics. Nothing the applicant said took any of these restrictions into account.

I realized then that the job did not require someone who could think outside the box: The job required someone who could think inside the box. Indeed, the job required thinking inside a molecular cube.

Now, while it may seem that working under such circumstances would stifle one’s creativity, nothing could be further from the truth. In order to get the job done, we had to be veritable Michelangelos, making miniature frescoes inside our molecular cube. Without creativity, we could not survive. Yet, it is a special kind of creativity. A creativity that is restrained and disciplined. A creativity that has to improvise with limited tools and resources. A creativity that pays full heed to the many concrete realities we face. A creativity that many people will never see or understand.

One of the innovators of modern heart surgery practiced tying knots inside matchboxes, using tweezers to manipulate a nearly microscopic thread and a magnifying glass to see what he was doing. Yet, this skill was necessary for the kind of surgery he wanted to do, and his restrained, disciplined creativity was what led him to innovate and save lives.

How many other jobs are like this? How many other jobs are constrained by rules, regulations, logistics, or even physical or biological realities? It seems that most jobs are highly restricted in some way or another. What point is there in thinking outside the box when the world that is being described does not and cannot exist?

So no, I am not interested in someone who thinks outside of the box–he or she will only waste my time, as the box is the reality that I live and work in, and is something neither I nor my employees can change. Wishing will not make this box go away. Changing jobs or starting a new company in this field will also be to no effect, as this box is just as real to our competitors. There are simple practical realities which cannot be overcome no matter how hard one tries.

You cannot make the delivery boy come any faster–he will take his sweet time no matter what you say. No, the government will not allow us to cut corners on this project, so stop thinking about it. Yes, it is unfair that the general manager won’t let us do X despite our protests and how wonderful it would be, but nothing we can do outside of hiring a hit man will change this. No, we aren’t getting a new copy machine–it was a choice between that or a better server, and we needed the server more. Yes, I like Macs too and we could do our work faster if we had them, but this is a Window’s operating environment, so we have to live with it. No, you cannot put a round peg into a square hole, no matter how hard you try. And if you persist and end up damaging either the peg or the hole, I will have to fire you.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thinking outside of the box? It’s just daydreaming. Meanwhile, I have a project to manage and work that needs to get done–work that cannot be daydreamed away. But if you have the creativity to work within these many restrictions and constraints and still succeed, this is something I–and so many other managers–can use.

In the end, someone who can make works of splendor and art despite being shackled inside a cubical is much more valuable to the world than someone who can only weave miracles with looms of mists, and spindles of dreams.

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6 Responses to Why Thinking Outside of the Box is Overrated

  1. Finally someone with the guts to say it! I’ve seen too many crackpot ideas that would never work being lauded for being “outside the box”.

  2. lizp4 says:

    A few years ago, I read a book entitled, “Thinking Outside The Box.” It may have just been me, but the thing was a jumble of incomprehensible twaddle. I thought I was doomed because none of it made any sense, and I had some idea that it was necessary for me to do such outside-the-box thinking. Then, I came to my senses. I donated the book to the library, and never worried about it again.

  3. Paul K says:

    I think you miss the whole point. Thinking outside of the box simply means not being restricted by past thinking when you are looking for future solutions. Sure, some of this can be over-sold but the basic premise remains. Dismissing it only as ‘spindles of dreams’ is an over-reaction. Even government regulation is not a total limitation. If it was, AT&T would still be a monopoly and MCI would never have been started. Disruptive Technologies are all examples of ‘thinking outside of the box.’

    • John Scotus says:

      Actually, you appear to have missed the whole point. Reread the article and chew on it for awhile. Thinking outside the box has nothing to do with ATT, MCI, or disruptive technologies. In all these cases, the people involved were very much grounded in the facts and in real-world constraints. On the other hand, what most people mean by “thinking outside the box” is that facts and reality should be discarded as they get in the way of creativity. This is absurd and ultimately nonsensical. My hope with the post was that people would stop thinking in cliches and start finding practical solutions to the problems they are confronted with. Alas, your comment shows that my posting was a failure.

      • Tom says:

        I never got that impression from “outside the box thinking.” I’ve always seen it presented as taking the presented facts and looking at them from a new perspective.

        So in your example the person in the interview would actually look at one of your restrictions (maybe government regulation) and see that regulations (and their enforcement) change with political appointments therefore X maybe possible now.

  4. Pingback: Failure, The Most Popular Option Of All | The Tree of Mamre

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