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.