I recently attended a lunch where Michael McMillan, a well-known creative consultant, talked about thinking outside the box. Many of us hear this phrase thrown around like it is the mantra of innovators, when in reality, it’s horribly cliché. It’s an old and tired idea. The reality is that all creative ideas, by definition, are outside the box. The box represents all things easy and acceptable; there is no real innovation in the box. The box is the status quo or the normal. So as creative people, we hate the box. We like to be out of the cage, free to roam. McMillan went on to say that the box also represents the ideals and procedures that are part of the heart and soul of any corporation—the agreed upon standards. For most big corporations, there is a sense of uneasiness when they wander too far away from the box, which makes innovation ineffective. If change is what you want, incremental change is what you need to strive for.
It sounds watered down a bit, but it’s not. McMillan refers to this idea as the “Circle of Change.” Think of it as progress or growth. The box is a set of norms. In your mind, draw a tangential circle that touches the edges of the box. That circle is where innovation can happen that can affect change. That circle then establishes the new box and set of standards. The process repeats and grows and eventually there is evidence of growth, similar to rings on a tree. It is within this area that we work outside the box, but still close enough to reality to make change accessible to the people still inside the box.
This concept is also explored in Gordon Mackenzie’s book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. The basic premise of the book is that corporations have a sense of gravity to them. According to Mackenzie, “Like physical gravity, it is the nature of Corporate Gravity to suck everything into the mass—in this case, into the mass of Corporate Normalcy.” He also says that, “There is no room in the Hairball of Corporate Normalcy for original thinking or primary creativity. [Re]synthesizing past successes is the habit of the Hairball.”
I realize this sounds pretty condemning of corporate culture. The reality is that there are many good things about a corporation’s culture, vision, mission and history; it is important to stay close enough to these elements to retain many of the essentials that make us part of our firm. However, breaking through the gravitational pull that Mackenzie refers to, and setting yourself into the outer atmosphere where creativity happens, is a must. The challenge is to stay close enough to the organization’s gravity, which will allow you to orbit. You are still connected and benefit from the good of the company, while avoiding the true pull that can ground us and limit our creative genius.
Image courtesy of Jim Henry