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Image What does thinking outside the box really mean and how should we go about doing it? Communications coach Vera Ng'oma offers some helpful tips.

I recently asked a couple of friends the following question: What comes to mind when you hear the expression 'think outside the box'?

I got answers such as 'being creative', 'doing things differently', and even 'challenging the status quo'. This demonstrated what I suspected. That while organisations often tell employees to think outside the box, there is often no clear definition of what this actually means in a particular organisational context.

I believe that the starting point for responding to a call to 'outside the box' thinking is;

    • Be clear the nature of 'the box'. The box tends to be accepted longstanding ways of doing things. Knowing the type of box helps determine what constitutes alternative strategies in a given situation.
    • Whose box is it anyway? Some 'boxes' have and continue to serve a purpose. Some established traditions are held onto dearly by some people; so it's important to establish to what extent the box could do with some fresh ideas and insights.
    • Know what represents unconventional thinking. Some organizations are very traditional in their way of doing things. Change may not be immediately welcome; check the readiness of the organization or team to some different thinking.
    • Strategize how to get outside the box. There are always defenders and protectors of the way things have been done. Take an approach that acknowledges this point of view and work out how best to gain support for the options you're proposing.
While organisations often tell employees to think outside the box, there is often no clear definition of what this actually means in a particular organisational context.

  • Don't think outside the box just for the sake of it. This skill of lateral thinking must help to solve real problems or present a better way of doing things. Sometimes it's more a question of widening the box rather than going outside of it.

The above said; if you must think outside the box, here are some suggestions on how to go about it.

  • Challenge your assumptions regularly; interrogate things you have taken for granted and learn to hold your assumptions and opinions lightly.
  • Stop looking at things only from your point of view; Get someone with a very different way of looking at things to challenge the ideas you come up with.
  • Make 'what if' your mantra. Commit to experimentation and think about what's possible instead of what is or was. Asking 'so what?' also opens up angles for further examining an idea.
  • See old things in a new way. Explore connections between alternatives that are not immediately obvious and don't give up on an idea because it did not work in the past. Take a fresh look in light of any new information.
  • Constantly ask new questions. Come at things with an open mind and use open ended questions to explore the issue at hand. Avoid questions that yield 'yes' or 'no' answers.
  • Be your own devil's advocate: Many of us are quick to critique others' ideas. Pretend your idea is someone else's and critique it accordingly. Don't be reluctant to let go of ideas with no merit.

Vera is a communications specialist, a leadership facilitator and mentoring coach with over 12 years experience in communications includes roles in the print media, corporate communications, PR and international communications across public, private and global organisations. She currently works in Malawi as Education Adviser, having previously worked with the British Council Malawi as Deputy Director with responsibility for leading communications across 8 African countries. Her company LIVEXCELLENCE', a leadership and personal development outfit, helps organisations and individuals to effectively apply a 'can-do' spirit, greater leadership literacy and purposeful action to achieve visibility, improve performance and fulfil potential. Vera Ng'oma can be reached via verangoma@gmail.com

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