Freeing thinkers one thing, finding them is another (Editorial, April 8, 2002)

Think outside the box.

The catch-phrase is popular these days with HR professionals, business owners and consultants who want to encourage employees to think creatively about their work — whether its developing new products and services or re-engineering processes.

Having witnessed the creativity — and subsequent market success — outside-the-box thinkers in the dotcom world achieved, employers want to unleash the same entrepreneurial spirit in their own employees.

It’s a worthwhile pursuit, but just be sure you go into it with your eyes open, for true outside-the-box thinkers are a rare commodity.

Thinking outside the box requires a willingness to deviate from the norm. And if this breaks a few conventions or rules, so be it. But people are comfortable with rules. And conformity — the very antithesis of outside-the-box thinking — permeates society.

It only takes a stroll through any Canadian suburb, where every lawn is cut, groomed and sprayed to community specifications, to appreciate how conformity thrives. Despite a chorus of physicians’ groups warning about the danger lawn chemicals pose to the health of children, Canadians continue to spray, spray, spray. Pity the outside-the-box thinker who doesn’t appreciate the thrill everyone else gets from having their lawns appear a certain way. Here, outside-the-box thinking pegs you as the neighbourhood troublemaker.

And when it comes to adhering to rules, anyone who has ever attempted to return merchandise can attest to the fact that an alarming number of retail staff would rather have a knock-down-drag-out fight over store policy, even if it means the shopper (and the 10 people he tells about the incident) will never set foot in the establishment again. Many retail managers and executives actually spend a lot of time trying to stop employees from blindly applying policy, but…

And even if you could get everyone to think freely, there’ll be a group whose ideas should stay in the box, with the lid nailed shut.

So, the question isn’t so much, “How do we free a workforce to think creatively?” but “Can we identify the few who can, encourage them and let them loose?”

It’s not a new problem. Back in 400 BC, Plato was bemoaning the fact that getting people to think in a new way required dragging them out of their caves into the enlightened sunlight. Change management experts will vouch that little has changed in 2,400 years.

So, while you work to encourage outside-the-box thinking, don’t be disappointed if the majority of staff don’t take to the notion. Those who do will provide ample return for your efforts.

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