(our version, not to be confused with Bertrand’s version!)

Have you ever noticed how we humans, often unconsciously, expect to be both in a box and out-of-the-box, all at the same time?
Since I started The Vibrant Company, people have asked me, entirely reasonably, ‘what kind of a business are you?’ and ‘what service do you provide?’. What they also mean is: what box can I put you in? ‘Please tick all boxes that apply’.
The trouble, and in fact the opportunity, is when we don’t fit into any of the existing boxes. I have always preferred the idea of making up my own and it’s very often the advice I give to others too: ‘don’t feel like you have to choose from the menu someone else has created for you. Choose your own options – in fact, design your own menu’.
This is much harder than we might imagine though as the human brain likes boxes. They make it much easier for us to assimilate and retain information. I understand this – I have a background in both communicating science and the science of communication. We’ve been conditioned since birth to live in boxes and the tech we increasingly rely upon is designed to keep us there.
It’s not that I don’t like boxes per se. Sometimes they’re incredibly helpful. Ironically one of my most beloved business tools is a 4-box grid. It was created by Professor Eddie Obeng*, to explain the fundamentals of project management and I have referred to it countless times over the years. I have amended it slightly because I see that the logic applies just as much to a whole organisation, or to an individual’s career, as it does to a project.
The grid is shown below and descriptions of the four project types can be found in Professor Obeng’s book: ‘All Change!: The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook’. 

It’s immensely helpful to understand what kind of situation you’re dealing with from the outset – where does it feature in the grid? The two axes correspond with the two critical questions in any scenario: do you know where you want to go? And do you know how to get there? The answers take you to one of the four boxes and each is suited to different personal preferences, requires different kinds of leadership, demands different approaches, etc. Not only have I spent the last 20 years helping leaders and their organisations get clarity on which box they are in and then what to do about it, but having founded three of my own companies, I’ve operated in all of these boxes many times over and I’ve got both the accolades and the scars to prove it!

As a result, what I’ve come to know is that the really good stuff, the source of real innovation, of true originality and actually even of genuine peace of mind, lies in and beyond the fog. It’s ironic that ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ comes from a box – the unknown.  It just happens to be the one that most people and indeed most organisations feel least comfortable being in.

It’s for this reason that we tend to look for what we don’t yet know – something new, something different, precisely where it is not: in the places we already know of. The futility of this approach is obvious when you see it, but many people never do and that’s because we are constantly striving for certainty – we feel safer in the ‘known’. Our brains are hardwired to calculate what we might lose if we leave our current place of perceived security, whilst at the same time they are virtually incapable of grasping what we might gain if we venture out into the ‘unknown’. This is why those same people and organisations who want out-of-the-box solutions ask any would-be helpers ‘what box do you fit in?’ i.e. they want to discern your ability to navigate the ‘unknown’ from their ‘known’. Can you see the problem?

The conditioning to innocently collude in maintaining the box paradox is hard to resist. Creative consultancies are perpetually asked to conjure original and new, but at the same time ensure that whatever they propose fits in the current paradigm. And even beyond this, as marketeers we are trained to think in boxes (an already defined market segment) so that our customer base can find and fully relate to us.

This shouldn’t stop us though. As my phone rings I am reminded that the i-phone was the first combined mobile telephone and personal stereo/portable media device, i.e. it created a new box. True creativity and innovation is, and has always been, about venturing into the unknown in order to explore beyond the realm of current thinking and the prevailing status quo to find outside the box ideas. 

*Professor Eddie Obeng is a Professor at the School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Henley Business School and the founder and Learning Director of Pentacle (The Virtual Business School).


If, like us, you love the possibility of exploring the exciting potential that awaits you outside the box – to create their own menu of ideas and solutions for seizing opportunities and overcoming challenges, whether for you, your team or your organisation, we’d love to have a vibrant conversation with you.

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