Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past 20 years, I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “get out of the box.” It’s everywhere. Whole industries have sprung up around it, including mine.
No one can deny that getting out of the box is a good thing to do. Seems like a no-brainer, eh? Kind of like helping little old ladies cross the street. Or tearing down the Berlin Wall.
But before you start planning your heroic escape, answer me this:
What the heck is the box, anyway?
What is this so-called thing that keeps us so contained, confined, caged, trapped, claustrophobic, and otherwise unable to succeed?
Let’s start with the basics. A box has six sides, including the top and the bottom.
If we can understand what these six sides are, we’ll know what we’re dealing with — and this knowledge will improve our chances of getting out. Or, as Fritz Perls once said, “Awareness cures.”
Let us proceed…
If you want to raise the odds of being trapped in a box for the rest of your life, all you need to do is increase the amount of fear you feel.
Fear inhibits. Fear paralyzes. Fear subverts action. Indeed, when fear rules the day, even reacting is difficult. Fear not only puts us in the box, it makes it almost impossible to get out the box.
Fear of what?
Fear of judgment. Fear of failure. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being revealed to be an impostor. Fear of this. Fear of that. And fear of the other thing, too.
Do you think it’s an accident that Peter Drucker devoted his entire life to driving fear out of the workplace? Or course not.
Fear sucks. And precisely what it sucks is the life right out of you. There is no box without fear. Get rid of fear and you get rid of the box.
Powerlessness is the state of mind in which people think they have no choice — that they are victims of circumstance, that the act of attempting anything new is futile.
It’s why Dilbert has become the patron saint of most cubicle dwellers.
Some in-the-box people have dwelled in the state of powerlessness for their entire life, going all the way back to childhood, overpowered (or disempowered) by parents, schools, and who knows what else.
If you work in a corporation, you’ve seen this powerlessness paradigm in spades — as the “powers-that-be” don’t always take kindly to the ideas, input, and grumblings of the “rank and file.”
If you’re feeling powerless, not only are you in the box, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to muster the energy, intention, or urgency to get out of it.
Boxes are usually small and confining. Rarely is there room for more than one person. Isolation is the result. There’s no one to talk to, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to collaborate with.
Curiously, solitary confinement is the biggest punishment our society doles out — second only to the death sentence. Being cut off from the tribe has been a very effective “behavior modification” technique for centuries.
When you’re in the box, that’s exactly what’s happening.
And while your isolation may give you a momentary feeling of much-needed privacy, safety, and relief from the judgment of others, it’s fool’s gold. Sitting in the dark, being completely on your own, vision obscured — all reduce your chances of getting out.
Assumptions are the guesses we make based on our subjective interpretation of reality. They are short cuts. Lines drawn in the sand.
We end up taking things for granted because we are either too lazy to get down to the root of things or too entranced by our own beliefs to consider an alternative.
Ultimately, it is our assumptions that shape our world. The world is the screen and we are the projector, seeing only what we project — which is all too often merely a function of the assumptions we’ve made.
As one wise pundit once put it, “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees our pockets.”
Bottom line, we see what we are primed to see. Change your assumptions and you change the world — starting with your own.
5. MENTAL CLUTTER
If you find yourself in the box, it would be fair to say that the box contains you. But what do you contain?
If you are like most people in today’s over-caffeinated, twitterfied, fast food, information overloaded world the answer is: too much.
With the amount of information doubling every few years, most of us have way too much on our minds. Too much to do and not enough time.
We have no time for musing. No time for pondering. No time for reflecting. No time for contemplating, incubating, or making new connections — behaviors that are essential to true out-of-the-box thinking.
The result? Not a good one.
We glom onto the first seemingly “right idea” that comes our way — or else desperately try to declutter our minds with an endless series of mindless distractions that only increase the amount of clutter we need to process. Ouch.
6. NARROW MINDEDNESS
When you’re in a box, it’s hard to see. Sight lines are limited. Vision is obscured. We become shortsighted. Our vision conforms to that which confines it. We become, soon enough, narrow-minded.
I’m sure you know a few people like this. Their ability to see beyond their immediate surroundings has become disabled.
When this kind of phenomenon becomes institutionalized, we end up with a bad case of “next quarter syndrome” — especially in organizations ruled by the need to constantly please profit-seeking shareholders.
Few people are thinking six months out. Few are thinking twelve months out. And almost no one is thinking five years out. Everyone is trapped by the short-term.
What we call “focus” becomes a euphemism for tunnel vision — just another form of narrow-mindedness that makes getting out of the box about as likely as my credit card company rescinding their usurious late payment fees.
OK. I hope I’ve not depressed you. That’s not my purpose. Neither is it my purpose to obsess about the “problem.” But until we know what we’re really dealing with, all this hot talk about “getting out of the box” is just hype and a complete waste of time.
NEXT WEEK: Tips and techniques for getting out of the box. Until then, reflect on these questions:
- What are you afraid of?
- If you are business leader, how can you reduce fear in the workplace?
- How can you get reclaim your own God-given power?
- If you are a business leader, how can you start letting go of control?
- How can you connect with a more diverse group of collaborators?
- If you are a business leader, what can you do this week to foster more cross-functional collaboration?
- How can you identify your three biggest limiting assumptions?
- If you are a business leader, how can you identify your direct reports’ three biggest limiting assumptions?
- What’s the simplest thing you can do this week to decrease the amount of mental clutter in your life?
- If you are a business leader, how can give people more time think creatively?
- What can you do this week to dream bigger than you usually do?
- If you are a business leader, what can you do help your organization conceive a more compelling vision of its future?
Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions and the author of “Awake at the Wheel”, as well as the very popular Heart of Innovation blog.