Bury the Box

houdiniI give a lot of keynote speeches about creativity and innovation. Often, the people who introduce me ask for texts to read from. The last line of my prepared introduction is, “Tim thinks the phrase ‘out of the box thinking’ should be put back in the box and buried in a deep hole.” It almost always gets a laugh and sets a nice tone for my talk.

But it’s more than just a cute line. Like so many other clichés, “out of the box thinking” has been drained of any significant meaning by overuse and underthought. OBT and countless other meaning-drained phrases — like “paradigm shift”, “light at the end of the tunnel”, and “it is what it is” — seem to exude from people’s mouths when they don’t really have anything to say, but feel the need to say something.

My biggest gripe with OBT is that it makes it sound as though creative thinking is something we should go away somewhere and do as an exception. It makes about as much sense to say, “Let’s take a few minutes and think creatively” as it does to say, “Let’s take a few minutes and think ethically.” Creative thinking should be available to us on demand, not as an exception.

The real problem is we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that creative thinking is something special. It’s not. We’re all pretty good at it. If you doubt that, think about the last time you took a shower, or a long drive, or simply dozed off to sleep (though I hope not while driving!). You probably had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of creative ideas.

All of us are creative thinkers. Where we fall off the wagon, though, is that few of us are creative receivers. We don’t honor, celebrate, or often even remember the wonderful creative ideas we have. We have them — and then they’re gone — either because we’ve rejected them or forgotten them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness all that creative thinking! Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring the shower into the boardroom or the family room or the factory floor? That’s where we need creative ideas.

So how about we stop talking about thinking outside the box and start looking for ways to open the box and let our natural creative thinking in?

“A cliché or cliche is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel… A cliché is also a term historically used in printing, for a printing plate cast from movable type… When letters were set one at a time it made sense to cast a phrase used over and again as one single slug of metal. That constantly repeated phrase was known as a cliché.” – WIKIPEDIA

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