Thinking without the box

An article in the Wall Street Journal recommends that we “Think Inside the Box,” as the much touted technique of brainstorming “has become a byword for tedium and frustration.” I thought back to some training sessions where I have had to try to get people to engage in brainstorming, and wondered whether I had been engaged in something pointless.

The most recent was in a Junior Achievement program on entrepreneurship that I taught at a middle school this spring. One key characteristic of the entrepreneur is to be creative and innovative, and brainstorming would seem to be a way to generate new ideas, resisting the usual impulse to reject an off-the-wall idea without considering whether it might really work.

(I’m not sure how productive brainstorming was in our case. Partly this was because it was a group of special needs students, and it was only my second session, when I was still trying to get a feel for what approaches worked with them. Partly it was because it is just so hard not to respond to an idea with what you know is wrong with it – or to keep other students from doing so. But in the end we at least did manage to get an idea of what it would be like trying to design a new business.)

In April, while I was involved in this program, I read a different WSJ article about innovation. “How Entrepreneurs Come Up with Great Ideas” offers a number of approaches to creativity. One of these is brainstorming – provided it is in an area of personal interest. Others involve being observant, noting problems in need of solutions, and just letting the brain come up with ideas without conscious direction.

So are the authors of “Think Inside the Box” mistaken? One reader comment suggests that what they are trying to do seems to be giving a logical explanation for what the intuitive person does without following linear thought patterns. Another says what I think was the essence of the April article: “the elusive goal of understanding the conditions that foster creativity remain mostly unknown.”

Another comment points out that “it is seldom either-or in the real world.” Brainstorming is useful but it usually benefits from structure and knowledge of real-world constraints – which is really not too much different from what the authors of this article are saying.

Perhaps it would be best to stop trying to think either “inside the box” or “outside the box.” The problem is the box itself – that we have a narrowly pre-defined idea of the range of possible solutions. In any given situation, the best answer may turn out to be very close to what we have already, with one significant difference. But if one starts out thinking that one difference is not practical, the ideal solution will remain undiscovered.

The types of thinking recommended in the article often do yield rich rewards. One comment, however, questions whether the examples given were actually cases where the type of thinking led to the result, or if it was merely interpreted that way after the fact. It’s always easy to see the answer once someone else has pointed it out.

And then there are those of us who don’t come up with much in the way of original ideas, but enjoy blogging to point out what good ideas other people have come with.

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