At half or more of the workshops I attended, the trainer would pull out a "Think Outside the Box" exercise and share it with us. You know the one -- it's a three-by-three arrangement of dots, where the assignment is to draw four pencil lines that cover all nine dots. You can't do it unless you 'think outside the box' and draw past the imaginary lines that separate the three-by-three dot array from the rest of the page.
The three-by-three dot arrangement was as far as the motivational workshops ever got into 'outside the box' territory. That's a shame, because stepping out of boxes is the most important thing we can do for our companies and for ourselves.
If I'd had less fear of speaking up in those days -- less fear of stepping outside the box, in other words - I would have said "Drawing four lines to cover nine dots is not a good example of thinking outside the box."
We do a grave disservice to working people when when we pretend that it is. It's a cruel joke that management consultants keep shoving that stupid grid in our faces when the truth in most large organizations is that thinking, speaking or acting outside the box is the last thing anybody wants you to do. People who step outside the box get shushed, sidelined, shunned or invited to leave altogether. That's the problem we formed our company, Human Workplace, to address.
We can't talk about Thinking Outside the Box when corporate and institutional life is so boxed up that movement beyond the perimeter is all but impossible. The working world in 2014 is constructed of boxes within boxes.
We leave square rooms in square houses in the morning to get into square cars or rectangular trains or buses. We walk into square buildings and then into workspaces so square that they're actually called cubes.
Everything at work is squared-off, gray, formal and rigid. Are you curious why that is so? I am.
Why is work gray and blue, icy and mechanical and made of chrome and steel? Why is it formal and ritualistic? We think we know the answer. "It's because it's business, silly," only then have no answer to the question "Why must business be stiff and gray and formal?"
That's the biggest question of all and the elephant in the room in every organization. Why do we believe that there are two ways to be -- a normal, human way to be at home and the playground and the grocery store, and a stiff, formal way to be at work? There's no benefit to customers or shareholders when we buy into that man-made vision of what Business Must be Like. Yet we've been told that that's how it is, and we fall in line. Why?
Where is the softness, the life, the energy and the sense of human purpose in our mechanized view of work? Why was work designed that way? Was it to get people thinking like machines, or thinking that they are machines, or just tiny pieces in a larger machine over which they are powerless?
Thinking outside the box requires us to see the box. We won't see the boxes that restrict us until we question things we've been told since we were little. We call these unexamined mental models frames; they are essential elements in the Human Workplace vision to reinvent work for people.
You can't break frames you don't realize are there.
Why do we believe that we employees are powerless against the Godzilla structure of rules and policies at work? Who taught us that? There are more of us than there are of them - but only if we see it.
Why do we believe it's fair and reasonable to take a paycheck and give up our humanity, our personality and our spark in the bargain? Why would we ever make that deal? We do it because it hasn't occurred to us that we don't have to squash our flame in order to pay the rent. It may not have struck us that when we see people around us cowering in fear, we don't have to do it, too.
If you want to step outside the box, first see the boxes that hold you back. Force of habit is one.
You can shake the frames around you by changing small things. Try a new food every few days. Listen to music that you haven't heard before.
You won't step outside the box without exposing yourself to new ideas, new sounds and tastes. Shake up your routine. Drive to work a different way every day. When your brain goes on autopilot, the box around you becomes more solid. When you have to think and react to new stimuli, the box weakens.
Ask questions at work; like "Why do we do it this way?"
I ask questions of our CEO clients. Sometimes they furrow their brows and look like they're about to get angry. That's a good thing - it means the answer didn't spring from their lips without reflection. If they didn't have to think to react to my questions, what good would my coaching do them?
When you step out of the box you won't anticipate what might make someone angry and avoid saying it. You'll say what's on your mind.
If you're thinking "Liz Ryan is insane -- I can't do that, not where I work!" I hope your next question is, "Now that I think about it, why do I stay here, wasting my talent in a place where I can't be myself?"
When you step outside the box you realize that you built the box you just stepped out of.
It's easier not to speak, and not to try. The box is confining, but it's cozy too. It's easier to say "My boss is a jerk, and that's why my job sucks" than to step outside the box and change things.
When you complain about your situation rather than change it, you build a ten-foot reinforced-steel box to live in. Drawing four lines to connect nine dots won't make a dent in that fortress.
We have to work hard to tear the walls of those boxes down. We have to talk openly and often about how the man-made, optional and destructive structure of traditional workplace culture is killing us. Who cares if you get that big promotion if the result is that your soul shrivels up and dies, your children don't know you and your legacy is that you forgot yourself to raise your company's inventory turns three percent? If you want to step out of the box, answer that question.
Everyone has the same opportunity to step out of the box. When we crumple, tear, fold, spindle and obliterate the boxes that keep us timid and hesitant and quiet, our muscles grow. Our spirit sings. We realize that everything important to us is up to us and always has been. We want to talk about getting free. We want to help other people do it!
That's when reality intrudes with the message Not everybody wants to get out the box. Some people are more comfortable connecting nine dots with four lines than making actual changes in their lives.
Stepping outside the box, until you are ready, feels like like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. People who aren't ready to step don't want you to talk about it.
We created the Reactionometer to describe that reaction -- the "How dare you ask me to step!" reaction that we hear every day.It's fear. There's a lot of it around.
Leave the boxy people to their path and go in search of folks who will challenge you and ask you to challenge them. Find your voice and speak your truth at work and watch who follows you and who shrinks back.
If your flame can't grow in your current job, get a stealth job underway and make the declaration "I will work with people who get me."
Life is long, our Buddhist friends say, but it's still too short to waste time when your path is just ahead, begging you to take the first step.
Step outside the box and follow that path! You have much to offer the world, and no time for people who want to keep you in boxes.