A80pxtreeny list of empty marketing phrases will include a couple of loved and familiar entries. They make us laugh while feeling safely immune from their emptiness.

All harmless fun.

‘Thinking outside the box’ has sidled into this position.

The phrase feels like an old rogue of an acquaintance: never taken too seriously, yet thought of with fondness.
But is it a rogue – or a danger?  Not only has the true emptiness of the phrase eluded us.  So has its falseness.


The trickiest task for any of us in a business environment is to become fully aware of all aspects of a situation or challenge. And our own part in it. Prejudices, habits, favourite theories, ambitions and needs will all conspire to filter out what we can see and read of the data around us. And that data is truly around us: in front of our eyes.

We live in a time when our culture encourages and favours extrovert behaviour. These things go in cycles, and that part of the cycle is where we are.  One symptom of this has emerged as I watch how teams, sometimes very experienced teams, approach new projects.

I see and hear – very early in the process – ‘we must be different’, exclamations of ‘we need to get creative about this’ (think ‘outside the box’), and ‘we must be original’.

What effect does this have?.

Such an approach is immediately setting a high bar, creating an unintentional pressure. It is effectively suggesting that everyone aims for a standard of perfection. And the effect of trying hard to reach a standard, as many of us will have experienced, is a strained self-consciousness that can kind of ruin everything. It’s creating a tension, isn’t it? Tension makes us anxious. Anxiety makes us fumble.

So does trying too hard to be clever. Actively trying to be different effectively blocks our ability to see the obvious.
We will all see any situation in our own way. Something different will be apparent to each of us. It may seem obvious. Good. Share it.

An obsessive search for something clever can mean missing the obvious, missing what was right there. Great solutions can and will be found when we are relaxed and natural and being ourselves. What appears ordinary to one team member may be a revelation to another. The familiar becomes fresh when looked at attentively.  The trick is to not become caught up in trying too hard to ‘be creative’.

Keith Johnstone, the fantastic pioneer of improvisational theatre reminds his students of a killer ingredient for improvisational creativity:

‘Dare to be dull’.

So perhaps we should spend less time with that loveable old marketing phrase rogue, and introduce a successor.
Let’s think inside the box. Let’s pay proper attention to what is actually there.

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