Cause Camp Recap: When It’s Okay to Think Inside the Box

From an early age, we’ve been told to “think outside the box” to solve problems. By now, this saying has been said so much that it’s a first-ballot inductee in the Overused Cliché Hall of Fame. As cliché as it is, it makes sense. It’s just telling you to think unconventionally and creatively, and look at the problem in a new way, and can be applied to almost all situations.

That’s why I was so surprised when I heard speaker John Rood tell Cause Camp attendees to think inside the box during his presentation. That particular piece of advice stuck with me after the conference, so I decided to take his idea and dive a little deeper.

Before we get too deep, let’s clarify what Rood was saying. The phrase came up as one of six points on his “wheel of hyperbole.” He isn’t advocating for keeping the status quo. Instead, he’s saying that as marketers, we need to think inside this hypothetical box. After all, he said, that’s why it became “the box” in the first place. It was developed over time by people’s successes and failures. These things are the things that work. You don’t have to figure out the right tool for the job, it’s been done for you.

This idea isn’t new. There have been several books written on what we’ll call the “counter-cliché.” These books use this lens to look at how this applies to topics like management and innovation. The authors of one of these books, Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, shared their thoughts with Theodore Kinni in an interview for strategy-business.com.

“Thinking outside the box is a complete myth. It is based on flawed research from the 1970s. Subsequent research shows that simply telling people to think outside the box does not improve their creative output. It sends people on cognitive wild goose chases… Contrary to what most people believe, the best ideas are usually nearby. Thinking inside the box helps you find these novel and surprising innovations.”

I don’t know if I’m ready to make the jump that outside the box thinking is a complete myth, but who am I to argue with two college professors? The most telling part of that quote for me is that we send people on a wild goose chase while the best ideas are usually nearby—right in front of you.

You’ve probably heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. If you haven’t, the basic idea is that to be an expert in anything, it’ll take 10,000 hours of practice to master. Put even simpler, lots and lots of practice makes perfect. If you’re thinking outside the box, conjuring up some off-the-wall schemes and solutions, that time isn’t going towards mastering your craft.

Let’s say you’re working on some creative fundraising methods. The fundraising “box” is HUGE. Your own organization’s efforts may not be enormous, but if you can imagine a tactic, somebody somewhere has probably tried it out and had varying degrees of success. There’s no need to try to reinvent the wheel. The same can be said about recruiting volunteers and filling seats on the board.

Innovation often comes from small adjustments, not huge, radical changes. Take a construct that is in front of you already. If it’s not good enough as is, tinker with it and make changes, but you likely don’t need to start from scratch. The box is there for a reason. It’s been constructed by years and years of professionals that have been here before you. Don’t get too intimidated if you’re not an overly creative thinker or have a hard time getting outside the box, because oftentimes the answer is right there, inside the box.