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5 traps that will make “out-of-the-box thinking” fall flat

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 6 min read

Cartoon showing a manager encouraging the team to think out of the box, but deliver inside the box

We’ve all been there. A senior leader in an organisation gives a pep-talk about how she or he wants more innovative thinking in the organisation. We need to be brave, bold and ‘think outside of the box’. We need to brainstorm, ignore constraints, and come up with radical new ideas to solve problems and better serve the customer.


Out-of-the-box brainstorming can be a great way to encourage innovative and divergent thinking. It can be a great way to come up with completely new ideas in a supportive environment, and a great way to challenge our existing assumptions.


Yet I guess everyone reading this will have seen at least one situation where an organisation encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, but then delivered something very much inside the box.


Sadly, over time this can lead to real cynicism. You can almost hear that deep, cynical sigh from a co-worker that we’ve got to attend yet another “fluffy out-of-the-box brainstorming” session. It is sad that this happens, and it really doesn’t have to be like this.


So — why might efforts to encourage “out-of-the-box thinking” fail? Here are some situations I have observed with some potential ways of avoiding them. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to hear your examples too:


Trap 1: We’re not really brainstorming, we’re divining

The divining fallacy occurs when a senior manager or sponsor states that he or she is looking for innovative thinking, whereas what they are really looking for is wider validation of their own preconceived idea. If you brainstorm in this environment, you’ll typically continue until you come up with the precise idea that the sponsor had in mind… In essence, it’s really more a guessing game than a brainstorm.


A potential solution: Have an independent facilitator at the session. Have the sponsor set the brief, and present them with the results after the meeting. Ask the sponsor what outcome they are looking for from the session.


Trap 2: The culture is unsupportive

Out-of-the-box thinking is incredibly difficult in an organisational culture that punishes or subverts anything that isn’t deemed ‘normal’. Perhaps there are even some senior managers whose jobs depend on the situation staying the same.


A potential solution: Nurture the organisational climate. Create a climate, over time, where innovation is supported and not subverted. Encourage suggestions and ideas from all grades and roles. Avoid situations where people are rewarded simply for maintaining the status quo and ensure that reward systems are balanced and aligned to delivery of organisational and customer value.


Trap 3: It’s just a buzzword

“We need to think out-of-the-box to deliver a pragmatic, lean, agile approach to deliver a turn-key solution to create customer delight”.


If out-of-the-box thinking is being used purely as a buzzword, with little understanding of what it involves or means, then it’s likely that a disappointing outcome will ensue.


A potential solution: When somebody suggests encouraging ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, ask them what they mean, and what type of ideas they are aiming to elicit. What do they consider to be ‘in-the-box’?


Trap 4: Creating a stick to beat people with

Imagine the following hypothetical situation.


You deliver an estimate for a piece of work to a project manager. Unfortunately, the project manager in question, unbeknown to you, has already made a commitment to a sponsor over the timeframe and your estimate doesn’t fit with that.


The project manager asks you whether you can cut the estimate in half. You work pragmatically to show ways that the elapsed time could be reduced (with extra resource), or by cutting corners (and increasing risk).


Worried that the sponsor won’t be happy, the project manager is unhappy and concerned. They express “disappointment that you won’t think out-of-the-box” and find an “innovative” way to carry out the same amount of work in half the time, with the same scope, resource and without introducing additional risk.


In this situation, the reality is that the constraints (time, budget, quality, risk) mean that we are cornered very much inside the box. Yet by suggesting a flaw in our thinking process, the project manager is creating a stick to beat us with…


Potential solution: Understand the constraints from the outset. Thinking creatively is still very useful here, but knowing the constraints up-front can help us to discount ideas that won’t fit. However, we can still demonstrate that there are other ways if the constraints can bend. A more forward thinking project manager may help us to brainstorm out the options and put them to the sponsor; it’s important to work in partnership.


Trap 5: No communication after

Involving stakeholders of all types in brainstorming can be useful. However, if we encourage them to generate hundreds of ideas in a brainstorming session, this will (hopefully) get them very interested in the initiative we are planning to run.

If they hear nothing further from us, the cynicism is likely to build up “Well, I went to a brainstorming session a year ago about exactly the same thing. Nothing changed. Nothing ever changes here”.


Potential solution: Where possible, ensure people are involved in not just the creation of ideas, but also the (later) evaluation and prioritisation of them. Ensure that expectations are set up front – thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ means that we absolutely can’t deliver everything – but we will plan to deliver something. Keep people in the loop and let them know what progress is made, and how they contributed to it.


So — what tips and tricks do you have to share? I’d love to hear them, please add a comment below.



About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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The excellent cartoon in this article was drawn by Matt Smart of SmartComedy. 

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