One of the most well-worn business clichés is "thinking outside the box." It seems that everyone is obsessed with thinking outside the box. However, if the concept is well worn, why is the practice so uncommon in our companies today? The problem is many people aren't clear about what the box is, or what it means to think outside it.

Thinking outside the box is supposed to mean confronting problems in atypical ways, thinking creatively and freely, and encouraging frequent challenges to the status quo. Outside-the-box thinking, in the creative words of Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, is "constructive nonconformity" behavior. This is behavior that deviates from organizational norms or common expectations, to the benefit of the organization.

Gino's research confirms that out-of-the-box behavior is rarer than you might think. In a study of 1,000 employees in a variety of industries, fewer than 10% said that they worked in firms that encouraged nonconformity or thinking outside the box. Additionally, the Harvard Business Review conducted an internal study asking employees how often they saw senior leaders challenge the status quo or ask their teams to think outside the box. Only 29% said "often" or "always," 42% said "never" or "almost never," and 32% said "sometimes."

While the urge to get outside the box is strong--we've been working with companies on pushing their growth and innovation agendas more than almost anything else recently--the disconnect between what we say and what we do in challenging the status quo and embracing creativity is stunning.

Here's how we can nurture the ability to look at things differently and encourage constructive nonconformity:

  1. Question the status quo regularly. Make nonconformity the expected conversation. Ask "Why?" "How might we...?" and "What if...?" Put apparent conflicting issues side by side and begin to solve for them as a team. Conventional wisdom might say resolving conflicting issues isn't possible, but if you challenge "the way we do it today," you'll come up with new thinking.  Here's an example activity: Give your people the opportunity to imagine they work for your competitor, and their job is to attack your organization where you are most vulnerable. This is a great way to challenge the strategic status quo and identify new issues from a different perspective.
  2. Take a wider perspective and oscillate between uncommon content!  Breakthrough thinking and creativity often come from making uncommon connections. Keep widening the lens aperture to take in different and broader perspectives that could make sense. The key is to oscillate between seemingly unrelated topics, concepts, or issues to find the uncommon connection that causes a different view or an idea to move "outside the box." Don't discount anything as unrelated or unconnected.
  3. Draw a picture as a team. Draw a picture of your challenge and possible ways to solve it. You don't have to be Da Vinci. Drawing engages your right brain and can release the hold your logical left brain has on thinking about the issue or "the box" the same way. Metaphors are also very powerful tools for holding a lot of information in a small amount of space. The key is to engage your team in the process of visual thinking and visual iteration to encourage different views about how a solution could take a new path.

A simple exercise you can try is asking everyone to draw a picture of what "thinking outside the box" looks like to them. Then compare your pictures and explain them to each other. Discuss which aspects of the pictures have energy, excitement, or possibility, and merge these into one new image to represent how to act in a creative new way.

What does thinking outside the box mean to you and how do you encourage it with your team?