There’s an overused saying by Albert Einstein that goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes, doing the same thing over and over again is often the only thing we know how to do. Sometimes we may do it less, or we may do it more loudly, but in the end, unless we learn from our experiences, we can easily be frustrated that actions that appeared to work the first time begin to be less and less effective.
There is another great quote attributed to Albert Einstein although quoted in quite a variety of ways. In essence, Einstein said that we can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created the problem in the first place. In other words, the only way to improve our activities, and to address the challenges of the day, is to be constantly questioning our own mental models and reflecting on what we have learned in the process of what we have done. For leaders, this is a very important point. Without the willingness to reflect on our own activities, we will continue to repeat the same problems (and some of the same successes) until the context has changed so much that our approach is no longer relevant.
But how do we do this? I only know what I know. And I am a total skeptic when it comes to the idea of “thinking outside of the box.” My box is my box.
And I like my box, thank you very much.
My box represents my experience, intelligence, education and knowledge and it represents my own reality. To ask me to think outside the box is to ask me to do something I quite literally don’t know how to do. Stop worrying about thinking outside of your box…explore new ideas and models and then take them back into your box and apply them.
Here’s an example: Suppose I’m in one of these profound creativity workshops (probably called an “ideation” workshop for cryin out loud). In it the facilitator says, “Todd, I would like you to approach this problem as if you are the Master Chef of a five-star restaurant.” Now, I have no idea what a five-star Master Chef is or does. So it is likely in this exercise I will do what I THINK a Master Chef does which might be that the Master Chef operates his or her kitchen like an automation machine, calling out orders to the various staff members and by controlling the process creates the outstanding dishes that make the restaurant five-star.
That might get me points with the facilitator, but it does nothing from a creativity standpoint. While this might not be an entirely useless exercise, it is unlikely to create a true breakthrough. On the other hand, what I might do is say, “Facilitator, I have no idea how a Master Chef thinks. However, I know the general manager of a five-star hotel and I bet she could create an opportunity for me to watch and study a Master Chef.” And of course, to my amazement, by doing this research I discover that Master Chefs do not call out orders. In fact at times they are the most quiet and focused person in the kitchen. In fact, in this case, the Master Chef has many others who do the prep work, ensure the quality of the ingredients, provide the measurement and the order within the kitchen. As they provide these pieces to the Chef, he or she creates the dish based on the output of all of the professionals around him.
Now I’ve learned something outside of my box that I can bring back in. If I want to apply this lesson to my own problem, perhaps I delegate pieces of the problem to people on my team with the right skill and experience to handle it and then get out of their way. I define my role as the integrator and allow my team to do the prep work, using their contacts and their skills so that when we create the final solution, my job is bringing things together in a pre-defined manner.
I’m not suggesting you should approach your work as a Master Chef. What I AM suggesting is that you take the time to truly explore other approaches before simply jumping to conclusions about what a creative idea might look like. Don’t disparage your own box, but value what you can learn from others. Then look for the underlying lessons or processes and see if these can be applied to your own situation. Innovation is not as easy as we think and at the same time does not have to be complex. It does have to be intentional. And intentional innovation is one of the keys to successful leadership.