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In and out of the box

By Dr.Edward de Bono


The expression 'thinking outside the box' is in common use and well understood. It is visual and communicative.

There is an implication that the 'box' is a bad thing and constricting, as all boxes tend to be. Yet, the box is a very good thing indeed. The box contains all the values, attitudes, beliefs, rules and assumptions that allow us to behave in a rational and useful way on any occasion.

Without boxes, life would be a random walk. Or we would have to work out every single step rather than rely on routine or the value guidance of a box.

Sometimes the box instructs us to pay attention to some things and not others - and so determines our perception. Sometimes the box provides the formed ingredients which we put together to give the perception.

All this is very useful and prevents us from floundering around trying to find ways of looking at the problem or situation.

While appreciating the high convenience and operating value of the box, there are times when we want and need to break out of the box.

The intention to 'break out of the box' is essential as the first step. By itself, however, this intention does not get us very far.

There are formal tools of lateral thinking. They can be learned, practised and used by anyone as a skill.

There are certain business areas where there is a strong belief that you need to spend years in that area before you acquire the box perspectives and values. So there is the dilemma. There is a need for some new thinking outside the box. At the same time, there is a belief that you have to be within the box to provide useful solutions.

Put another way, the dilemma might be: you have to be a novice to learn new tricks, but tricks not based on experience have no value.

The solution to the dilemma is surprisingly simple. The outsider works with an insider as a team.

Most things that are done are logically related to something else. Sometimes, if we follow the 'logical trail' back, we come to a point where what was done depended on an arbitrary assumption, an arbitrary value, an arbitrary perception or the technology that was available at the time.

The insider can explain why, logically, things must be done as they are done. The outsider can probe and find the original assumption.

Even when it is logical that something must be done in a certain way, there is always the possibility of another way which is just as logical, but more effective or cheaper. Adequacy should never block the search for something better.

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