Think Outside of the Box? Ugh…

Think. You’ve seen them. I recently saw another post on LinkedIn that was centered around business jargon. It is funny to read the phrases and colloquialisms used in the professional world. This particular one had 25 listed and was asking to comment on which phrase was our pet peeve. After reading through all of them and reminiscing about the most memorable times I’ve heard each of them used, I narrowed down my finalists. They included ones like “synergy,” “apples to apples,” and “bandwidth.” 

However, as an innovation consultant, there was one clear winner for me. I added my phrase to the comment section: “think outside of the box.” It’s not that I don’t agree with the concept, I actually live in it most of the time; it’s the fact that I don’t think people actually mean it. 

According to Wikipedia editors, it means “is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective.” A new perspective. New. That’s the tricky part. 

While I believe that people saying the phrase actually believe they want a new perspective, I don’t think they actually want one. In practice, for those that actually do want a new perspective, there are even fewer that appreciate the new perspective. Then, there is an even smaller percentage that will take the idea and “execute” on it. 

The reason “thinking outside of the box” is so disturbing to me is because it is my modus operandi. I love it. I thrive in it. If you present a problem statement to me, my brain goes into overdrive to imagine a novel solution. Operating within imagined constraints, I modify and update the idea to be a practical, if difficult one, to deliver. There are people who operate this way naturally. (See my post on brainstorming.)

With novel solutions, the biggest issue is that it feels impossible to implement. It takes more “out of the box” thinking to make it a reality. This means effort. Sometimes lots and lots of effort. By definition it also means change. It.means.NEW. 

Difficulty and change are not things that most people like to do. Out-of-the-box thinking demands a penchant for personal adaptation and hard work. That makes it off limits for the masses, but it’s where innovators reside. It’s where the best ideas come from. It’s where disruption and revolution are birthed. It’s a challenging path that yields incredible results. It’s not for everyone. 

The next time you hear the words “think outside of the box,” your immediate replies should be “do you really want this” and “are you willing to stick with the idea until it’s done.” If not, it frustrates everyone and doesn’t “move the needle” at all. If you say it, mean it and then work the ideas and enjoy the fruit of your labor. In the immortal words of Yoda, “Do. Or do not do. There is no try.”

Empower the Middle Manager!

You want innovation? You need the work environment for your innovators to thrive? You need a higher level of output to keep up with or exceed the market? You need to empower your middle managers. Why? They hold a critical key to innovation success: the mass of workers who report to them.

There are amazing companies that don’t need help with innovation. The leaders there are incredible. Financial performance is amazing. They represent to what most aspire; however, this is a very small percentage of businesses. Forbes does the Top 100. Fast Company publishes a list of the Top 50 Most Innovative Companies. That’s a very exclusive club. But not everyone gets press. Let’s say this performance is reserved for the top 10% of businesses. These have all levels of the organization working in lock step with each other. But that’s not where most people work.

That leaves 90% of organizations that don’t have ideal conditions for innovation. I spend the bulk of my time consulting with this group of organizations to help them improve their development capabilities. This post is extremely practical and is not meant to be all inclusive. There is plenty I won’t discuss here. I won’t be talking about the best leaders or the best innovation practices. I will be talking about the 90% and what I see there.

Let’s recognize the three tiers of employees: the executives, middle management and the doers. The sole responsibility of executives responsible for innovation is to create a culture that enables success; that means enabling middle managers, who actually supervise the work being done by the doers.

As you can expect, it’s very different talking to each tier of employee. For the most part, executives seem to be optimistic, middle managers seem to be negative about shifting towards more innovation, and the doers are just trying to get their impossible list of work done.

In bureaucratic companies whose career path forces corporate ladder climbing tactics, the gap between each tier is the widest and the performance is inversely proportional to the gap. I have found the highest level of performance occurs when the gap from middle management to executive narrows. This will empower.

Among the 90%, here is what I have found middle managers think about each tier:

Our Executives

  • Won’t understand the issue
  • Can’t fix the problem
  • Will view me as incompetent

My Employees 

  • Already doing as much as possible
  • Have too many projects to manage
  • At high risk of attrition

Me, the Middle Manager

  • Utterly swamped and hopeless
  • Feeling impact outside of office
  • Proud of work team has done

Middle managers, there actually is hope! Most executives can understand the issue, you just have to present the information in a way that matters to them. What metrics are they measured on? Sell them your proposal based on those. Don’t sugar coat the problem. Tell the whole story, not just your piece of it. Look at the impact to the whole value chain and organization, not your department. Appeal to their strategic initiatives and what makes them look good if your idea is successful. Push them to make a tough decision and don’t let up. Don’t make them look stupid in front of their peers. Talk privately for tougher conversations. This will cause them to empower you more.

Executives, you have to push your managers but you can’t bury your head in the sand and hang out in the ivory tower of the executive offices. You have to get to where the work is being done. You should be communicating with every level of the organization. That means going to the innovation shop floor. Do it regularly. Don’t act entitled or superior. Be one of them. Remove the barriers they share with you, not create new ones. This will empower.

The doers will follow their manager (unless they lose trust in their competency), not the executive. Among the 90%, there is more distrust and animosity toward the executives than there is their manager. The manager holds the keys to their performance. If managers are talking pejoratively about the executives, the executives lose and the company loses. If the manager-executive relationship is amenable, the gap closes and the doer performance is more aligned. 

Try these strategies. It is tough but extremely fulfilling. However managers, if after multiple attempts, your executives are unwilling to get their hands dirty, switch companies. The world is massive. There are firms out their that will appreciate your skills and will give you the opportunity to shine. Innovation demands new thinking and middle managers hold the key to releasing that power.