Learning To Think Inside A Box

Search Google for “Training To Think Outside The Box” and you’ll get close to 10 million results.

An overabundance of articles, seminars and workshops will instruct you on the myriad ways to overcome the box-like constraints that are keeping you or your company from reaching its true creative potential.

There’s just one problem:

Creativity is not about thinking outside the box. It’s about thinking inside a box.

As someone who has worked his entire career as a professional creative, I know this from experience. But don’t take my word for it:

Designer Charles Eames: “Design depends largely upon constraints.”

Writer and Philosopher Albert Camus: “Art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself.”

Composer Igor Stravinksy: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self.”

Nonetheless, the myth of thinking outside the box persists year in and year out.

The reason: a fundamental misconception of what creativity is, and what it’s not.

In the popular imagination creativity is weird and wacky. The creative process is unstructured, magical or even divinely inspired.

But creativity is not about divine inspiration or magic.

It’s about problem-solving, and by definition a problem is a structure, a constraint, a limit, that’s right,box.

Put simply, what we do when we create —whether it’s a PowerPoint presentation, a novel, a video or a symphony— is make order out of chaos.

We start out faced with a plethora of information. It could be numerical data or hours of consumer research footage or the countless ideas we just generated in a brainstorming session.

Understandably, our first reaction is What am I to make of all this? The possibilities, after all, seem limitless. Where do I even start?

As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice, we’re paralyzed by options. Before we even begin, we’re blocked.

Our job then is to make choices, to filter all that information, discarding most of it, turning what’s left into a coherent form that is useful and meaningful and perhaps even beautiful.

The question is: what criteria do we set to make those choices?

That’s where the box comes in. As we analyze the information, we’ll see that there are different ways to organize it. Each one is a set of rules, so to speak, and each set offers a smaller, more manageable problem we can then explore without being overwhelmed.

I would submit, therefore, that learning how to think inside a box should be integrated into all professional development programs. It’s the conceptual centerpiece, in fact, of my seminars and workshops on storytelling.

It helps develop abstract and critical thinking, presents a rational approach to a seemingly irrational activity and can be applied to all sorts of problems in communications, product development and leadership.

The challenge for many trainees, you see, is not a lack of ideas or imagination. Provide a safe, nonjudgmental environment and those will emerge almost effortlessly.

The problem is rather that they have too many ideas, but lack the tools to sort and shape them into a meaningful solution. We’ve all seen this PowerPoint™ presentations filled to the brim with bullet points, each of which may be interesting in itself, but collectively fail deliver an intelligible story. Or in ideation sessions where whiteboards are covered with insights only to be abandoned shortly afterwards because no one holds the key to organizing them into something useful.

The fact is, for ideas and insights to have value, they need to be presented in a box.

Fortunately, that box can be whatever you want. This is where the real creativity comes in. You determine the size, the dimensions and the material.

But it is a box nonetheless. It sets rules. And it’s those very rules that will free your thinking and your imagination, and ultimately lead you and your company to the place it wants to be.

As legendary filmmaker Errol Morris explains: “I set up an arbitrary set of rules and then follow them slavishly.”

What could be more liberating.

David Intrator is President of The Creative Organization and conducts seminars and workshops on storytelling, creativity and branding. He can be contacted at: david@thecreativeorganization.com

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