A strategy to actually ‘think outside the box’

We, as business leaders, repeat the catchphrase “think outside the box” and continue to state, that absent this approach, our businesses cannot grow and thrive. Given that, however, most prefer to operate within a specific and precise framework. They stay in the comfort of the box and deflect anything that may alter it.

Stating the simple command and expecting magic to happen isn’t realistic.

Great business leaders, like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, promote that it’s the responsibility of every worker to find a better way of doing things. But what techniques are needed to develop a simple, easy process to encourage new ideas?

Step 1: Schedule it

We like our calendars up-to-date and even put down travel time to permit ample time to arrive. For me, the best way to encourage creativity is to schedule it. This might seem counterintuitive, but the more that creative thought can be scheduled, the more likely it is to happen.

Step 2: Disconnect idea generation from idea evaluation

Historically, when looking for innovative ideas for your company, the most common method is brainstorming. Unfortunately, it isn’t very effective.

Once a topic is developed, after about five minutes, after no additional conversation, a new idea is promoted and the pattern repeats. Think about your last group session — whether a group of six or eight people, you hear from two or three who most often develop and approve or destroy new ideas.

As such, disconnect idea generation from idea evaluation. By splitting brainstorming into two activities, employees will be able to focus on generating and ultimately producing great ideas. There are no bad ideas at this point, which encourages participation.

Step 3: Evaluating ideas

At a separate time and place, evaluate any ideas. Maybe the best example of how to vet ideas was developed using Robert Dilts’ Disney process.

Playing the role of critic, the group looks at the pros and cons of each idea. They say, “This would be great because …” followed by, “This can’t work because …” It’s critical to make the group look at the same idea from both angles — why it would work and why the same idea would fail.

Another process involves taking all ideas and ranking them on both payback to the company and how difficult they might be to achieve. They also need to be weighed against the overall mission and vision.

Step 4: Experiment on a consistent basis

Celebrated tennis writer W. Timothy Gallwey stated, “Perfect strokes are already within us, waiting to be discovered.” Tennis great Billie Jean King explained, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” The above process must be continued over and over again.

Getting everyone to make this routine — just like the production of recurring reports — ingrains a style of thinking that yields positive results.

The phrase “lather, rinse, repeat” conjures up shampoo commercials with the actor/actress sudsing up beyond necessary. The message was clear, though, keep doing something and it will work. Did any of us think this actually worked?


Elliot N. Dinkin is the President and CEO of Cowden Associates Inc. Elliot’s strategic approach assists clients in the development of a total compensation benefit package that controls costs, adds efficiencies and enables the employer to attract, retain, motivate and keep employees engaged while meeting company objectives. Through his guidance, employers become more competitive by creating total compensation packages verses viewing benefits in silos.