WBB's Thought Leadership

Are You Playing Inside or Outside the Box?

November 7

Managers say, "I want out-of-the-box ideas!" but they seldom mean it. When you show up with new ideas and new perspectives, managers can get threatened very easily. Your fellow employees can get threatened, too.

I have participated in a number of conversations about wanting out of the box thinkers. I have seen posts criticizing folks for not staying in their lane or for those creative thinkers who exceed limits.  As I have thought about this topic I began to wonder what does it really mean to be an out of the box thinker. It is really out of the box thinking or simply thinking at all that makes one out of the box? What is the purpose of the “box?” What does it take to lead a team of folks who constantly push the limits?  Is it better to have bigger boxes or smaller boxes?

Throughout my entire life I have been characterized as an out of the box thinker. This is sometimes said with a view of appreciation and admiration. Other times it is said with a cynicism and frustration. Both views experienced while serving in the Military and beyond.  I thought I would do some research on this topic.

What I have learned is that out of the box thinking is simply creative thinking to solve problems. This might be more simply stated as thinking. If someone follows processes to solve a problem then there is little thought required. This is necessary when the solutions are time sensitive and when the needs are clearly defined, but when needs and solutions are not easily defined and when time is available then one must think “out of the box” to solve the problem. The reality is that one must think on his own and cannot use a prescribed thought process. Almost anyone would say that they want team members who think but then in the same breadth they want to ensure this thought is confined therefore negating the very desire they say they want.

What is the purpose of the box?

Starting out it is good to understand the purpose of any boundary or box. Is the box a theoretical boundary of behavior? Or is the starting point of creativity?  The answer is that it depends.

My view was shaped initially by a comparison between how the Navy/USMC view their doctrinal flight manuals (NTTP)  and how the Air Force views its  manuals (Dash 1). For the Navy and USMC the view was that the box was a starting point.  Things spelled out needed to be followed for safety reasons, but if it wasn’t written down then it was expected that you would creatively pursue alternatives. For the Air Force, the box was the limit.  If something wasn’t spelled out, then you were not able to do it. Both approaches have been successful but they lead to a radically different culture in the members of each team.  

Maybe a better way to express this difference is to see if the box is a minimum or a maximum level of effort.  There is freedom of initiative when the box is a minimum and there is control and safety when the box is the maximum.  Which is the culture of your company?

How do you lead teams of thinkers?

Knowing that “out of the box thinking” is really just thinking in unscripted ways I would argue that everyone wants teams of thinkers. If we are not thinking then we are just robots. Allowing everyone to think freely and provide input could lead to chaos. How do you lead these teams?
First: the leader must set the culture.  The leader cannot be threatened by free thought or team members who might be “smarter” or “better” than the leader.  Without this self confidence any idea is perceived as a threat.  Additionally leaders need to encourage free thought and participation. Leaders also need to select team members who are equally confident and secure. 

Second: Clearly define the purpose of procedures and standards and set boundaries on actions, not boundaries of thoughts. By creating an environment that welcomes the creativity of thought while also defining boundaries on actions, one can put a functional framework for the team to be expressive. Establish places for team members to express ideas.

Third: Be willing to shift with the team. Jack Welch talks about finding the right people then directing the bus.  If you get the right people on the bus you can take the bus wherever you want to go rather than directing the bus and filling it with the right people. In this circumstance, you must be willing to allow the direction or nature of a team to flow and be less rigid. 

One box or two?

Through further discussion and research I have come to the view that there are really two boxes. A box of requirements (Must do) and a box of limits (Don’t Do).

When the box of requirements is small (Few must do’s)  and the box of limits is large (Few Don’t Do’s) there is the greatest opportunity for team and employee potential. Few required tasks and very broad limits. This is also the scariest situation for supervisors. Leaders fear they may lose control of the behaviors of their teams.  This forces leaders to actually lead and most importantly trust and coach their players. The trade off is that team members can feel appreciated, encouraged and welcomed without having to simply conform. Additionally the leader can focus more on leading the team rather than managing a set of rules and behaviors.  If I only need to check a few behaviors and processes, then a leader can mentor and grow the team and focus on the quality of the work.  There is freedom for leaders who have smaller requirements boxes to manage. Additionally, teams that encourage thought can weather change must better and faster as they are used to adapting. Change and flexibility are inherent in day to day operations within a set guideline. In the Marine Corps it was called your lateral limits. Give a task, state your intent, set the limits, and empower.

The other scenario is to have a large box of requirements (Many To Do’s)  and a very restricting box of limitations (May Don’t Do’s).  This means that the obligated behaviors and tasks are high and the freedom to deviate or modify is low. This is an environment where thinking is scripted or where there is no time or opportunity to deviate from the set requirements. As a manager this might be the “easiest” circumstance because one only has to check that the required actions are being completed. (Much like compliance-based safety). The actions are scripted and freedom to think and experiment are not allowed. 

Obviously there is a lot more detail and rigor that can be applied to these sections and there is more science that could be applied to argue each point but hopefully this provokes thought, discussion, and spurs some internal assessment to your own company, your own leadership style, and your own desires for yourself and your teams. Trust is hard and takes deliberate training and focus to communicate expectations and allow failure as the team grows in capability. The overall reward is huge though with high functioning and empowered teams. 

I work as a consultant with WBB (www.wbbinc.com) and a Training consultant with PM-ProLearn (www.pm-prolearn.com)

I would love to connect.  Please email me at jatkinson@wbbinc.com or jatkinson@pm-prolearn.com

Written by: Joshua Atkinson


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