Defining Leadership

A Leadership Tool to Encourage Thinking Outside the Box

Andrew Cox asked:

Thinking outside the box is a critical PersonalSkill – one that will make the difference between success or failure. The real critical leadership skill is accessing the thinking of others to help see what possibilities lie outside the box  outside the individual world of thoughts and beliefs and biases.

Try this tool to get the “out of box” thinking flowing with your universe of people.

Draw a square 1 foot by 1 foot. Divide all four sides into 3 inch increments. Connect the markings horizontally and vertically. You now have a large square with 16 little squares inside it – a grid pattern.

Ask your people how many different squares can be seen in the grid. The first answer is usually 16. With some encouragement someone will say 17 – then eighteen – then 19 or 20. That will only happen if you, as leader of this exercise, show an expectation for a larger number than the first answer – which is usually given quickly and with conviction. Stay at it – keep asking how many squares others see. Engage everyone in the answer. The number of squares will continue to increase. With a lot of encouragement your group may get to 24 to 26. Not bad – but there are 30 squares of various sizes that can be identified in the grid.

See how many people try to work alone. See how many include others in their discussion. When the group has just about exhausted the possibilities, tell them the answer. If someone gets the answer, ask them to describe the squares – so that others can gain knowledge.

The point? The group was probably willing to accept the 16 or 17 or even 20 squares that were stated quickly and with conviction. Had they done that, they would have left 10 or so squares unidentified. Can your business afford that kind of superficial observation and conclusion ? Does that kind of dynamic happen often? Make those points as a means of pointing out how very important it is to challenge quick answers – how very important it is to share thoughts – how very important it is to encourage – or demand – that people expand their perceptions and look at things through the eyes of others.

There’s balance required in this process. Winston Churchill once said “It’s important to have an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.” The same is true when it comes to thinking outside our own boxes. But in at least 95% of the cases where groups attempt to reach for the best answers, many of the members simply don’t share or contribute their inputs. The last thing you have to be concerned with is any brains falling out of open minds  the real concern is getting all the brains contributing.

I suggest to you that the critical Personal Skill leaders bring to thinking outside the box is the skill to draw out and value those hard – to – get – at inputs from others. They’re the difference between seeing 20 boxes or 30 boxes. Which is better for your organization?

Try this tool with your group  use it to help define what you mean by thinking outside the box. Do it today.

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