Thinking Outside the Box? Overrated.

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At one time or another, every business professional has been told to “think outside the box!” After all, that’s the only way to drive innovation, right?

Not exactly.

Not only has “thinking outside the box” become more of a generic stock phrase than real, actionable advice, but it may have never been good advice in the first place.

“Outside-the-box thinking is often valued because the perception is that outside the box is where innovation and new ideas come from,” says Brad Deutser, CEO of management consultant firm Deutser and author of Leading Clarity: The Breakthrough Strategy to Unleash People, Profit, and Performance. “The truth is that there is an inextricable link between what is happening outside [the box] and inside the box [that] makes up a company. When focused on what is ‘outside,’ you are thinking in a way that is disconnected from the brand, from the organizational imperatives, from the people, and from reality.”

In Deutser’s telling, the box represents a “central organizational reality.” When we get hung up on thinking outside of that box, it is all to easy to be led astray by ideas that have no connection to the heart of the organization.

“Even if you do [arrive at an] exciting idea, the effort and result are unsustainable because there is no foundational underpinning,” Deutser says. “The box gives us structure and takes us to a desired future state. While we embrace creativity and innovation and can cultivate these within the box, we have to accept that there are natural parameters that govern the things most important to an organization.”

Every company depends on certain foundations and principles to sustain its operations. When those traditions and values are ignored in favor of “outside the box” thinking, the resulting decisions are likely to meet with heavy resistance because they are not connected to the reality of the business. More effective changes — whether structural or cultural — must come from within the company’s box.

“We find that the greatest growth emanates from within,” Deutser says. “When you start with your organizational identity — the core of who you are and how you can create an impact — and then take that out into the larger environment, it creates a connection that is authentic and allows the internal and external to grow and interact more authentically.”

Changing the Company From Inside the Box

When companies seek to restructure or change their cultures, it is easy to set large goals that are difficult to meet. Instead, change must be strategic. Set those big goals, but also create a road map that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be. Large, sweeping changes will often create confusion and hostility across the organization, but incremental changes toward clear goals will be easier for your workforce to swallow.

When it comes to organizational changes of any kind, “it is the ambiguity that creates chaos,” Deutser says. “When we have clear understanding of the values, behavioral norms, and characteristics of an organization in transition, people are more open to strategic changes being made. If they understand the operational values, they are willing to give management the opportunity to change things within the organization.”

“Clarity … is fundamental to setting a purposeful direction for the leader and the leadership team,” he continues. “It gives the employee base something to hold on to, understand, and work toward achieving.”

This is why inside-the-box think matters: It creates a shared understanding and a common set of expectations for everyone to follow, even during tenuous times.

“The box forces leadership to align around the most critical dimensions that have been proven to drive performance,” Deutser says. “If you have a strong foundation — culture — and honest, clear dialogue about expectations, employees don’t care as much about the final look of the company as a whole.”

Forcing change from the top down is painful. Bottom-up change is often largely ineffective. The best way to implement positive culture change in an organization is through a holistic approach. When every employee is a stakeholder in the new direction of the company, change happens more easily.

“The box allows for a higher functioning leadership capability and a more engaged workforce,” Deutser says. “By way of the creation of the box, all are brought to a very purposeful focus and a positivity that links the most important elements of the company. We ensure that the culture doesn’t revert [because] people know who is responsible for moving what areas forward. We move drivers that ensure that we are not merely compliant in execution, but rather committed to fiercely protecting and purposely evolving the culture.”

Culture changes are as much about where your culture came from as where it is going. If you’re tired of failing at attempts to modernize your corporate culture, put it in a box.

Read more in Culture Change

Jason McDowell holds a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. By day, he works as a mild-mannered freelance writer and business journalist. By night, he spends time with his wife and dogs, writes novels and short stories, and tries in vain to catch up on all of those superhero television shows.