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Recently a new colleague joined us at the Business School. In her opening remark to many of us she stated clearly that she was able to ‘think outside the box’, and that she would like her students to ‘think outside the box’ as well. I was sceptical, very sceptical, since I have learned to appreciate the difference between an empty mind and an open mind. Out of the box thinking is really just emptying the mind and contributes precious little, or actually nothing, to the creative process.

The phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ is one of the unchallenged and often unsolicited phrases of advice shared freely by those meaning well. In principle, it is supposed to free the mind to think differently, not to get stuck in the current paradigms and to follow the calf paths (have you read Sam Walter Foss’s brilliant poem?). The box, in our assumption, represents the troublesome old ways. So far, so good. Trying new things is good advice and finding new ways to compete or differentiate is highly desirable.  

The examples of innovation cited by those inspiring us to think outside the box are often those of the lone genius: Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, Stephanie Kwolek and the magic material Kevlar, Herman Mashaba and his Black-like-me empire, Steve Jobs and the iEverything, and Henry Ford and the moving production line. Even Archimedes and Leonardo da Vinci are heralded as examples that should inspire us to think differently; and therein lies the problem. They are all incorrectly described as lone geniuses who thought outside the box and became hugely successful. We just assume they are these brilliant individuals that woke up one morning and thought out of the box.

The truth, however, is that innovation is very rarely accomplished by the lone genius sitting beneath an apple tree or behind an Apple computer. In the history of the world, inventions often do not emanate from the single brilliant mind operating outside the box. Innovation is mostly the result of either a collaboration of multiple minds or even the application of an established industry practice or process in a completely different context. 

Firstly consider the concept of collaboration. Stephen Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, provides a fascinating history of innovation through the centuries and contains numerous examples of people collaborating in order to innovate. The true story of innovation is that when people with different ideas have the opportunity to share, discuss and disagree about their ideas, this leads, more often than not, to innovation. When minds meet and ideas or concepts that are busy forming are allowed to mingle, then truly new ideas are born. This is why the diverse ideas, divergent points of view and different perspectives of a diverse group of individuals will invariably give rise to creative ideas. As we continue to move towards more diverse organisations in South Africa, this message should be a clear: a diversity of thoughts unleashes greater ingenuity in thinking and ultimately leads to higher levels of innovation.

Secondly consider the fallacy of fresh ideas. Most famous examples of innovation are not really outside the box thinking. Henry Ford did not think outside the box to create the production line. He saw the most efficient way to “disassemble” an animal’s carcass in an abattoir and applied the reverse in his production line – and so changed manufacturing forever. Up to 80% of breakthrough innovations originate from outside the industries in which they take place. An apt example is the Lodox scanner – a brilliant South African innovation adopted by hospitals globally – which was born out of a need in the diamond mining industry that led to new technology which later found its most useful application in healthcare. 

The true challenge therefore seems to be to think ‘into’ other boxes, not outside the box. In order to be creative, in order to obtain truly new ideas, we need to look into other industries, sectors and market segments for ways of doing things. We need to think into the boxes of our weirdest client, our off-the-scope competitor and the supplier who causes all the trouble, and to consider collaborating with those who provide the biggest amount of pain in the market. To be creative we need to work very hard to get into other boxes. We must do research, immerse ourselves into specific situations, and look for different ways of doing things that others have already found, even in a completely different context.

So, you may ask, what of my thinking-outside-of-the-box colleague? It turns out she is brilliant at thinking into other boxes and hence has fresh approaches to address old problems. In one of the first meetings on a particular (and rather painful) process, she remarked that she had seen Organisation A doing something, had learned at Organisation B how to do something else, and after seeing Organisation C tackle the matter in another way, she suggested an adapted ABC approach. I thought her idea was brilliant. However, to me, her brilliance is not out of the box thinking, but rather into other boxes – Companies A, B and C, to be specific – thinking. It was her ability to make sense of what happens in other boxes, to do research, to benchmark, if desired, and then to assemble all this information from different boxes that makes her creative and a valued colleague. Now, if I could only get her to stop using that ‘out of the box thinking’ phrase … 

I believe there is a rather important difference between an open mind and an empty mind. Out of the box is such an empty mind statement, it really says nothing. The next time that you hear the phrase, be sure to respond: “No thank you, I’d rather think into other boxes” since I truly want to make a contribution.

Martin Butler.png

Martin Butler
 is a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and conducts research in association with the Institute for Futures Research (IFR). His fields of expertise are information systems management, technology futures, project management and innovation management and he lectures in these disciplines at the USB and IFR, as well as in Europe and Asia. 

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