Why telling someone to “think outside of the box” never works

At a recent meeting, someone asked me: “Mickey, how do you come up with out-of-the-box ideas?” I answered: “I don’t have a box.”

Outside-the-box thinking is a mantra of innovation. It’s often what leaders tell their employees to do in order to come up with great new ideas. But I would argue that the key to innovation is not about thinking outside-the-box. It’s about rejecting the idea of boxes.

“Boxes” are usually defined by an industry observer, such as an analyst, or by academia. Think about the way academia organizes itself into topics, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology. This is how we have attempted to understand large amounts of information. But the concept is outdated. Today, the borders in academia are blurred. Consider the issue of biology and DNA sequencing. Are we talking about biology or computer science? Or both? You can see how the “box” concept has become less helpful.

Simply saying, “reject the box” is not any more useful. Many employees will worry about how they are expected to behave without boxes as guidelines. What is the line between “outside-the-box” and “taboo?” These are issues that may weigh on the minds of employees and prevent them from achieving innovative thinking. They may worry about going too far and making a mistake.

Fortunately, there is a framework to replace the box system. This is my secret to coming up with new ideas.

The core concept is this: innovation is really what drives economic growth. This is a theory of Joseph Schumpeter, who was a professor at Harvard University. Schumpeter was one of the 20th century’s major economists. He said that innovation was the product of new combinations, and he proposed five combination patterns: 1) the production of a new good; 2) the introduction of a new method of production; 3) the development of a new market; 4) the acquisition of a new source of raw materials; and 5) the emergence of a new organization of any industry.

With his framework, Professor Schumpeter provides us a way to think about and pursue innovation. Rather than relying on a box—and what lies outside of it—look for frameworks that push beyond old definitions and allow for innovation to emerge and thrive.

We are past the era of the box. We are now in the time of innovation. Instead of thinking about lines and ways to cross them, think about new combinations and innovations they can create together.

Originally published by Quartz At Work.

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