Magazine article Work & Family Life

Creative Thinking 'Inside' or 'Outside the Box'

Magazine article Work & Family Life

Creative Thinking 'Inside' or 'Outside the Box'

Article excerpt

On the Job

Finding new and better ways to do things has become a mantra in our fast-paced society. When asked what organizations should do to survive in the 21 st century, the top answer given by 500 CEOs in a recent American Management Association survey was to "practice creativity and innovation." And the way to do this, say management gurus, is to think "outside the box."

Thinking outside the box has become the buzzword for coming up with original, envelope-pushing ideas for solving just about any workplace problem.

But is this really happening? Only 6% of the 500 CEOs surveyed thought their companies were doing a good job in this area. We still seem to be talking a better game than we're playing. While some companies are fully committed to fostering creativity, others only give it lip service. They rely on protocols, procedures and structures that discourage innovation.

Structure isn't necessarily bad

While we assume that creative thinking is more likely to happen in a less disciplined atmosphere, structure itself need not stand in the way of innovation. "It's time for someone to speak up in favor of the box", suggests writer/editor Marlys Harris. "Most people need some kind of structure before they can rise above or beyond it." When you ask children (or adults) to write anything they want, they often freeze. But if you ask them to write about their favorite TV show or describe their dog, they'll go right to it.

A workplace planning session on a specific topic may seem limiting, for example, but it can work if it creates a dynamic that allows people to think in nontraditional ways. "The key is to have the leader set an atmosphere in which everyone feels free to say dumb things," says an experienced executive. "Often this can spark an interchange out of which a great idea emerges.

Even a structured assignment can encourage people to think in ways they hadn't thought before. "I give each person in my group a copy of today's newspaper and ask, `In 10 years which article do you think will be considered the most important?'," says one manager. "There's no right or wrong answer and the next time we meet we have an animated discussion on how we arrived at our decisions. Then we can apply some of the ideas and use the energy and interest that has been generated to focus on solving a specific challenge within our organization. …

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