Why You Can’t Think Out Of the Box — And What to Do Instead

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By Alastair Dryburgh

“We need to think out of the box,” somebody says. The trouble is, if you actually manage to get out of the box, you’ll find that you can’t think at all. We need some principles, some categories and rules to make sense of the world and decide what to do. Our taco stand isn’t doing well? Should we try some new sauces, or convert to burgers, or, wait, how about we abandon the food business altogether and get into manned space flight (maybe with in-flight tacos)?

If you get out of the box, you find yourself in a trackless waste where anything is possible and nothing makes sense. There is a better solution, which is to find a better box. Let me illustrate with one of my favourite case studies. It’s the software company which couldn’t collect cash from its customers. For years, senior management had assumed that the problem was the low effectiveness of the people responsible, and had tried all sorts of rewards and punishments to increase it. Nothing had worked. They were stuck in a box labelled “effectiveness of staff.” It was only when we realized that the problem was with the organization, not the individuals that we managed to solve it. The collections staff needed help from the rest of the organization, and weren’t getting it. When that was corrected, performance was transformed.

So, to generalize; is your performance issue to do with people, or organization? Or alternatively, where does it fit in the following picture:


This box is a much more useful box, because it contains four smaller boxes. We can even give them names.


If an organization has low quality staff and is badly organized it’s heading for oblivion (unless it has some sort of monopoly).

If the organization is sound but the people mediocre or they don’t care much, you have a functioning bureaucracy (one of those ones we love to hate).

If organization and people are both very effective, you have something like Toyota (they care deeply about their people, and also have a legendary production system).

The fourth box is the most interesting – highly effective people without an effective organization. This can be very good, or very bad. It depends on the size of the organization. For a small, especially small and fast-growing, organization it is the way to go. For a larger organization, however, it is a recipe for frustration. The first example that comes to mind is my local tax authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Every time I deal with them I end up needing a half-hour lie down in a darkened room – the overwhelming impression is of people trying to do their best but utterly stymied by a catastrophically badly designed organization.

Once you have your box of boxes, you can work out where you are and what you need to do in order to improve. You can transform outcomes, while thinking within the comfort of a well-designed box. What more could you want?

This is the first of a series. Come back on Saturday for another way of breaking out of the box into some bigger, more interesting ones.

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