By Tony Samson
“THINKING out of the box” is a catch phrase for change and transformation, usually of the radical kind. The exhortation to throw out existing rules and let the imagination go bungee jumping is a common opener for strategy sessions held out of town. The idea is to look at the organization as an outsider: you have just acquired this company, and you want to shake it up.
The present way of doing business is suspect. And those with the least emotional investment in the organization get the biggest chunk of talk time with license to scoff at the outdated ideas of the old timers, even if these contributed to the profitable years of the organization — what got us here today won’t get us there tomorrow.
Rookies and those who just got their e-mail addresses and calling cards are the cheerleaders for upending the status quo. After all, they stand to benefit the most when old boxes are eliminated, and new ones are created. The boxes in this case are organizational, and desirable to get into, not out of, especially when they are positioned much closer to the top.
What if something out of the box is denounced as impractical or too risky? The defenders of the status quo (or common sense) are automatically ridiculed as dinosaurs. Jurassic is the preferred period. It is important to point out here on behalf of the big lizards that dinosaurs lived for a hundred million years before they became extinct. Human beings, the newer species, have not yet reached their first million years.
The romance of the untried and untested is all the rage, even in politics. Experience is sometimes equated to being a washrag “trapo” or traditional politician. The untested rookie is seen as more pristine, albeit also clueless.
Out-of-the-box thinking, even when it embraces the loony and eccentric, is given a respectful hearing. One can imagine the facilitator in a seminar, with marker in hand and whiteboard before him jotting down the silliest ideas in bullet points — close down all the branches and go to the Internet (yeah, that’s good — do we still need head office?), everybody should work from home (yes, good for traffic)…eliminate the top two levels of management to flatten the hierarchy — wait a minute, let’s table that. Next?
The appeal of anything radical lies in its reckless promise of redemption. It has no track record — how do we know it won’t work if we don’t try it? It cannot be attacked — you’re too negative with new ideas. The flip side is not mentioned at all — can we afford this loopy experiment? The seduction of novelty lies in the false hopes it raises before crashing into a reality check.
One lesson learned from the 2008 financial meltdown is the folly of even just a few fund managers thinking out of the box. They cooked up a novel financial instrument called a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO). The underlying assets were housing loans to sub-prime borrowers, or NINJAs (No Income, No Job Also), with the expectation for repayment coming solely from the appreciation of the mortgaged properties. This new market was unregulated and became ever more complex and unlike any product in the current box. Even the rating agencies were fooled, or in cahoots, giving the holders of the overvalued CDOs triple A ratings.
The downside of revolution is seldom calculated. When out-of-the-box thinking goes out of control, the dinosaurs not yet out of the organization are asked to clean up the mess and put the broken pieces back in the box, a much smaller one this time.
The most famous box of all, which is really a large jar, belongs to Pandora. The first woman in Greek mythology is given different gifts by the gods with Zeus throwing in a dose of Curiosity. So even when admonished not to open the box/jar, Pandora, like Eve the other first woman unable to resist a fruit diet, allowed Curiosity to get the better of her.
Opening the box, Pandora unleashed evils like ills, toils, and sickness. Quickly closing the box when she realized the harmful effects, she left at its bottom, still unreleased the last item there, which was Hope.
Thinking out of the box shouldn’t lead to boxing out thinking. Every bungee jumper knows he has to check if the rope can take his weight, is of the right length, and is tethered firmly on a strong anchor…before he jumps.
A.R. Samson is chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.