Think Inside the Box

For communicators—marketers, advertisers, PR pros—the phrase "think outside the box" is drilled into us. In business the clichê is meant to encourage us to think up innovative, creative and unorthodox approaches to overcoming challenges. Like many sayings in business, the phrase has also migrated into our personal lives.

As with most business clichês, "thinking outside the box" is a throwaway remark; it’s a platitude business people utter when they’re too busy—or lazy—to offer something more meaningful and constructive. The people who encourage you to "think outside the box" believe they’ve helped you; however, you generally walk away more confused than ever.

So…what if "thinking outside the box" is the wrong mentality? What if the optimal solutions to professional and/or personal problems are those items—tangible or not—which during a genuine crisis we put inside the box?

You’ll find a great (though tragic) example of "thinking inside the box" in the coverage (still photography and video) of the recent layoffs on Wall Street or the folks fleeing hurricanes on the Gulf Coast or people trying to reestablish their lives in China and Iran after massive earthquakes: We see haggard and harried individuals toting boxes with their most prized possessions inside. They've placed in a box the items most important to them.

They've thought—and acted—"inside the box."

When we leave a place—whether by choice or circumstances—we put our stuff in a box and depart for points unknown. In this case, the items are material goods—photos of loved ones, diplomas, certificates, prized books, items of sentimental value. In a microcosmic way, the things we take tells the story of who we are, where we've been, what we do, whom we love.

The stuff we take inside our box defines us, guides us, grounds us.

Inside-the-box thinking lets us tap the deep wellspring of our personal and professional experiences and skills. Rather than "thinking outside the box," we look inside ourselves for creative, innovative and unorthodox solutions to challenges. The items in our box help us overcome these challenges.

As we've seen from what refugees of natural and man-made crises carry, "thinking inside the box" forces us to prioritize those items (tangible or not) that are most important and meaningful to us. Those items represent our decision-making roadmap.

Next time you're confronted with a professional or personal challenge, disregard the hollow calls to "think outside the box." Instead, think inside the box. You may be surprised with the solutions you come up with!

First published on Human Resources IQ.