You’re in a meeting. The flip chart reflects what everybody already knows—sales are in the tank and the company is close to flatlining. What to do? For the next few minutes you are admonished to “think outside the box” and so begins another fruitless brainstorming session.
What do we really mean by that cliché anyway? And do we really want employees to do that? To really think outside the box one must be somewhat rebellious, going against the grain of accepted practices. Can we handle that? And one must be a loner. After all, he has to leave the comfort of the group (mentally speaking) to forge a new path, a better path that leads to new markets, new customers.
If that truly is where innovative solutions are born, then pulling everyone into a room and bringing in the coffee and doughnuts is not likely to make it happen. So how do leaders nurture creative problem solving in their organization?
Recently, I heard a discussion on NPR’s Fresh Air program about that very subject. The guest, science writer Jonah Lehrer, was touting his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
What they are discovering is that moments of insight are spontaneous and they typically arrive when we are not thinking about the problem. Secondly, they come wrapped in a feeling of certainty that this is the solution. The research also shows that when inspiration hits, the person is relaxed and in a good mood.
Lehrer said some companies are working to create environments that foster more creative thought. He cites the 3M Company where he says the engineers are given an hour each day to do whatever they want—work on a side project, tinker with a hobby, whatever. The only requirement is that they share it with their colleagues.
Today, that 112-year-old global corporation, which began as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., is known for literally thousands of inventions and innovative products. Many of them are used daily in our homes, offices and industries. Not a bad example to follow, I’d say.
Wouldn’t it be ironic to discover that for all the structured measuring, analyzing, teambuilding and formal problem-solving techniques we’ve embraced in the last 20 years, what really works is finding ways to unleash the creative mind of each and every employee? Certainly Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing and all the others have their place in identifying and quantifying the issues that need to be addressed, but I wonder if a half hour or so set aside to allow workers to relax, dream, and even play might be a better path to innovative problem solving? A preposterous idea I know, but it is “outside the box.”