In a recent leadership workshop a participant asked me:
“How can I encourage my staff to
take initiative and think outside the box?
I suppose one reason I saved answering the question until now (in this forum) is that it’s a multi-part question. There are three parts really – the encourage part, initiative part, and the “think outside the box” part.
As the title of this article suggests, I’ve chosen to focus on the third part because it’s the key part of the question.
Encourage will be interwoven throughout, and if you do the others well you will be well on your with the initiative piece too.
I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the phrase “think outside the box.” As with many phrases which once meant something important or profound or challenging (“taking it to the next level” comes to mind), through overuse they become cliché and often meaningless.
With “think outside the box,” I think it is not only over-used, but incorrect.
So let’s start then with my rant about “thinking outside the box.” (Give me just a second, I will answer the question – and the answer will be more meaningful once you’ve read my rant, I promise.)
What Does It Mean?
The phrase typically describes thinking more creatively and thinking beyond the tried and true.
The problem is with the phrase itself.
When you tell yourself (or others) to “think outside the box” you are assuming a box of conventional thinking and bringing our attention to it! If the goal is to think bigger and more creatively, then don’t handicap your subconscious. Rather than thinking about the box, why not …
“explode the box” or “find a new box”
Either of these phrases, while not as common, will serve you better and put your brain (and the brains of others involved) on alert as to what you really want – fresh, big and bold ideas.
How Do You Do It?
So, now that my rant is complete, what are the six things you can do to think more broadly and more creatively?
I’m glad you asked.
Reward creativity. This may seem obvious, but if you want greater creativity, you first have to let people know it is important to you and then reward them for being creative. Rewards could be tangible, but don’t have to be. Do people know you appreciate their ideas? Do you seek out and ask for bigger ideas regularly? This is a journey, not a quick fix. Asking or begging for big ideas today likely won’t work if the long term feeling is that creativity doesn’t really matter to you.
Expect new ideas. This goes along with rewarding creativity but is different. You need to have a positive expectancy about the quantity and quality of ideas as well as a true belief that your people (or you) can create these ideas.
Allow time. Every single person can be creative – but few, if anyone, can be creative on demand and to a deadline. For the issues, situations and problems that are most important to you and your organization, give people time to soak on and think about new ideas. Give their subconscious minds a chance to work.
Provide a safety net. People often rein in their most creative ideas because they just aren’t sure if they’re going to work. Whether stated or not, people don’t want to make mistakes. If you want more ideas and more bold ideas, you must get people past their fear of making mistakes. Acknowledge the risk that comes with innovation and encourage people to think about that risk later – the primary goal is to identify ideas!
Provide varied stimuli. Our brains will create more and different ideas when they are stimulated in new ways. As a leader you can help people “think outside the box” by providing new stimuli. Have people read an article or magazine unrelated to the topic before beginning brainstorming. Ask them a variety of questions, even some which might be off-the-wall, during the process. Encourage people to think of the situation like a seven year old, a grandmother, Ben Franklin, da Vinci or Homer Simpson would and capture the ideas that come from that mindset. This is just a small starting list of ways you can provide new stimuli to get new ideas flowing.
Model the behavior yourself. If you want others to create new, bold and big ideas, first take a look in the mirror. Are you doing it yourself? Are you seen as a person who is willing to think outside the box yourself? This is the last item on the list; it could just as easily come first. If you’re not modeling the behavior, how can your team know you are serious?
These ideas will help you and your team create more and different ideas. Not only will they help you create more ideas; they also will help you get better results and open the creative faucet that resides in all of us.