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Renaming the Box

July 23, 2012

Thinking Outside “Boxness”

We’re told, again and again, that if we want to be creative we have to think “outside the box.”  While this is a phrase whose meaning is never really clear (except, perhaps, when someone is told that they don’t do it–I think then they’re pretty sure what it means), it is something we have all been taught to aspire to.  But this week, Scientific American offers a brief article that tells us to go one step further, to take apart the box and rename its parts:

To become more inventive, new research suggests, we should start thinking about common items in terms of their component parts, decoupling their names from their uses.

In other words, as the article goes on to explain, we have a tendency toward “functional fixedness,” or rigid understandings about what things “do” or “are for.”  To really think outside, or around, or instead of the box, we need to take apart the box itself and understand what else it could be.

Not Just a Material Worldview

While the Sci Am article certainly focuses on rethinking material objects, there’s no reason the same idea couldn’t be applied to writing and texts, people, and ideas.

For example, when we look at a budget, we see rows of numbers and explanations of those numbers.  We see a text whose purpose in life is to tell us how much money we’ve spent (or can spend), and on what.  But break that down and it tells us something different.  Take each item out of the budget, along with its description, and see what it does for us as an explanation of our values and beliefs or a statement of communal purpose or even a promise to others, a contract.

And what about people?  Too often, I think, we allow the people we work with to become “functionally fixed” by their job descriptions or titles.  We look at the “VP Sales” or the “technical writer” or the “press assistant” and think, in the same way we do with objects, that we know exactly what this person is, their function and purpose.  And if we see that person over and over again, we fix our understanding of them so firmly in our minds that we no longer see a person with skills and interests but the fixed function we associate with that particular face.

And what about ideas?  What, for example, about a mission statement or goal?  We have the same tendency to sink into functional fixedness with these conceptual “objects” as with material ones.  What happens if we forget that we “know” what a mission statement is, does, and is for; what if we break it down into its parts and say, “What could this idea (say, collaboration or innovation) be doing if it weren’t always doing what we’ve come to expect?”

It is incredibly easy to slip into “functional fixedness” about the objects around us, whether they are material or intellectual.  This is all the more likely when something has become, and is used as, a “whole,” an entity made up of many parts that all work together to some particular purpose.  The more we can break down and rename or re-imagine those parts, the more we will get out of the whole.

If you really want to think outside the box, unmake the box itself and rename it.  Reassign its parts.  A box, in other words, might also be a collection of useful boards for building a platform, or a stage set for a puppet show, or several pieces of cardboard for making prototypes from.  Don’t think outside the box–unthink the box itself.

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