Out of the box thinking: Fashion, passion and caution

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

Though I had come across the term long back and had used it quite often, there was a classic case of "out of the box thinking" that I witnessed in the later part of my service which made me realise the potential of people abusing the phrase. So I thought throwing a little more light on the topic would be useful for the younger managers and so this attempt is made.

"Out of the box" is a phrase often used to mean a non-conventional product or a solution to a situation. When it means a product, it could mean something; existing or ready to be used up on opening; prefabricated; requiring no assembly, installation, modification etc. by the user or customer. It is "take out of the box and use" "ready to go" "turnkey" or "prefabricated. But in most cases, it is now synonymously used for out of the box thinking or out of the box approach to a solution.

Here, it is in a totally different context. It is an expression that describes nonconformal creative thinking. The term is used as an adverb to describe the thinking or as an adjective to describe the ideas. The term is said to have been derived from a famous puzzle created by early 20th century British mathematician, Henry Ernest Dudeney, in which someone is asked to interconnect nine dots in a three-by-three grid by using four straight lines drawn without the pencil leaving the paper.

In order to be successful, the puzzle solver has to realize that the boundaries of the dot array are psychological. The only way to solve the puzzle is to extend the lines beyond the artificial boundary created by the nine dots. A variation is "thinking outside the box" but many would use "Out of the box thinking". It is said that the phrase came in to existence in late 1960s and early 1970s in USA.

Fashion : Literally speaking, a non-conventional idea become common if used repeatedly the term explains of a temporary phase but experts are of the opinion that there would always be some solution beyond the corner which are unique and amounts to out of the box approach or thinking. The phrase has gained a place among top management jargons. It is true that in corporate world, where the level of competition is cut throat, it also has gained notoriety as a phrase the bosses use to rouse the supporting staff.

With a phase of MCT (Mid-Career Training) of senior officers being conducted in Management Institutes, the term has come in to the administrative jargon during last ten years to a large extent. This term is now a days very popular among the middle level and upper level managers/officers. Being a new term or phrase, people use it to show off their vocabulary than actual application. In the fast-paced world of information technology, employers often say they are looking for someone who "thinks out of the box."

In real life scenario, there are often situations like catch 22, which really need non-traditional or non-conventional thinking for arriving at a solution. There are people who can come up with left side and right side alternatives, who throw up many plausible and non-plausible solutions.

But such persons mostly confine to the conventional thinking. But when an unexpected solution comes up though literally it came out of conventional thinking, still bosses would boast of his out of the box thinking. Can an engineer's design be called out of the box? I am not an engineer but in my humble opinion those designs within the existing principles would not be called innovative, but those one would call revolutionary design would be out of the box approach.

Here I would suggest that let us not get mixed up with the other meaning of this phrase, i.e. prefabricated and ready to be used items. According to Sarah Susanka, the thinking should be creative, respond to the wishes and needs and not to the preconceived ideas.

Passion: There are managers who really are adept in such thinking. There are people who are born with such instincts. If I am allowed, I would call Mohammad Bin Tughlaq as father of Out of Box Thinking, his ideas were excellent and many would agree that he was a genius. The issue is his ideas were ahead of his time and he could not implement them properly.

But in corporate world, there are people who excelled in out of box thinking and they are assets of the house. It also becomes a habit in senior level managers in the cut throat race. There are people who are not that well educated but came up with wonderful out of the box ideas and do well in there ventures. I would say that out of the box thinking is the precursor of many inventions and innovations. In designing, may it be of car bodies or architecture of a house or in dresses, out of box approach is the key word.

Out of box is a part of innovations, and innovations are heart and soul of development. Out of the box thinking in a way can lay foundation for innovations or it can be regarded as part of creativity. Passion for innovativeness can be inculcated in start-up and even at early stages also.

So, if groomed from very early stage, a manager would be an asset. He would develop a knack of finding out of box solutions. There is always an element of risk associated with out of the box solutions, so the young managers have to attune themselves to those risks so that they are successful in thinking outside the box.

In spite of the risks involved, the managers would be forced to find solutions outside the box in many of the cases, the passion need to be developed. To outrun, one has to out-think, out thinking is thinking out outside the box, while others are thinking within the box. As said above, most of the boundaries like in the case of 9-Dots Puzzle are psychological.

Caution: In corporate set up the out of the box ideas are okay and it can be instantly incubated. But in government set up, implementing such ideas have certain limitations. I will tell a thirty years old story of one PAC meeting in Manipur.

An officer felt that the size of earthen cairn the department was using was unable to stabilise the phumdies, so he thought he would treble the size instead of abandoning the technique. Then the PAC cornered the officer so badly that he might have cursed his out of the box thinking.

I would put the question: who was at fault, the officer or the CAG? The PAC asked the officer who approved the deviation or the divergent approach and what was the hypothesis. The officer might have been very honest but the point is the honesty should be apparent.

Any new idea, or say out of the box solution need to be incubated first. Can one buy hundreds of costly machines because it is an innovation? Can one incur a huge expenditure because of an out of the box thinking? Let us see from the other side, a manager comes up with excellent idea and if put to normal procedure would take a lot of time.

His idea may run out of time or it may be plagiarised. He would be in a real dilemma. These are two sides that we have to think over. This is not to discourage the out of box thinking or innovations, but simply to inform that set procedures need to be kept in mind while embarking upon a new idea.

Selection, prompt trial or incubation and putting in to use are the stages one have to be mindful when adopting an out of the box solutions so that it can pass the logical test and scrutiny later. These checks and balances are important so that unscrupulous bosses do not escape in the name of out of the box approach or innovative solutions; all the out of the box solutions cannot always succeed, a fair percentage of innovations fail too.

So, out of the box ideas need to be sound as well. But I can assure you that this is a phrase which has come to stay because only out of the box thinking can give the lead, it can take one ahead of others either in corporate world or government institutions. All would agree that there is always a need for out of the box solutions when perplexing problems arise.

There is therefore, a need for the managers and bureaucrats who can throw up ideas whenever need arises, be it in corporate world or in administration as situations are bound to arise. So, there is necessity for keeping trained people in this aspect of governance and administration. Ways and techniques of training are available.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author can be reached at Bonbir01(AT)rediffmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on September 07, 2018.

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