You hear it all the time: think outside the box. You hear it to the point that it’s lost its meaning. And I’m okay with that, because I don’t think it’s the right guidance anyway, at least not all the time.
First of all, raise your hand if you know exactly what the box is. I’m fairly certain a good chunk of folks working for the people telling them to think outside the box don’t have a clue what the box is. So they couldn’t think outside it even if they wanted to.
The box is the system. And the system is something you must respect. It provides context for action, conditions for success, and meaning, which people crave. And it provides the line between invention and innovation. Fact: Since 2000, the average number of patents granted annually in the U.S. is around 182,500. Historically, only about 0.2 percent, or 365—one a day—go on to become useful, viable innovations. Guess where all the thousands of others are? Yep, still outside the box.
Build a better mousetrap, and the whole world beats a path to your door only if the conditions are just right. First of all, you’d better be overrun with mice. Which means that the existing mousetrap isn’t doing what it oughta, or, more likely, something else is going on that the current mousetrap maker didn’t consider. Chances are it’s not about the gizmo, meaning it won’t succeed no matter how jiffy it is. Chances are it’s the system governing the idea dictating matters. Seemingly great ideas get beaten by systems all the time. The system bats last. The system rules. So you have to be a good systems thinker.
Case in point: Thomas Edison. Edison was a systems thinker. He had to be to turn his invention into an innovation. He knew his little invention wouldn’t change the world on its own. He knew, because incandescent lighting had already been developed, on the other side of the Atlantic. He knew the gas lighting industry—the existing system—held the real power, and a light bulb alone wasn’t going to dethrone it. He knew that to change the world he had to provide on-demand light and power to everyone. And that required a whole new system to provide the proper context in which the light bulb could flourish.
In under three years and mostly with his own money, Edison built an entire electric power system in New York. He designed, engineered and manufactured everything down to wiring: constructing power stations to convert steam power to electricity, digging and laying miles of wiring, insulating the wires to prevent damage and discharge due to moisture, and connecting the conduits in a workable network. He built and installed electric motors in the various types of machinery that would use the new power source, along with all the infrastructure needed to support the use of electricity, like meters, fuse boxes, lamp holders, switches and sockets.
Now, Edison’s system lost out in the end to Tesla’s alternating current system, but that just further makes the point about systems.
Or take the original Apple iPod. While the rest of the music world fought the trend to share and download single songs over the Internet—defending to death the old system under attack by music lovers—along comes Apple Computer, with a nifty little mp3 gizmo called the iPod. But not just another mp3 player. A whole system, iTunes, to deliver songs the way people were wanting them delivered, designed to allow the iPod and its user to fit seamlessly into the whole mechanism. Without the iTunes system, the iPod would have been just another invention.
So, you’ve got a killer idea. Great! You have two choices: make your idea fit inside the box (and there’s usually lots of room for improvement there), or build a brand new box to replace the old one. If you don’t deliver a new box for an idea that doesn’t fit in the old box, you’ve got nothing to put your great idea in. So it’ll float untethered in the ether as just another invention without application, until it gets anchored to a system, to context.
So the next time someone tells you to think outside the box, instead think deeply about the box, and be sure to give it a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.