Jun
06

No Idea Left Behind—The Preservative Power of Boxes

Think outside the box.
We all know that our intellectual boxes can limit us. They can eliminate options, make us overly cautious, and generally just get in the way of innovation and creativity. Eventually, they can breed a “silo mentality,” an afflictive state of mind that strikes at the very moment we most need to come up with new solutions to pressing problems.
And yet at the same time, we love boxes. You know this if you have ever experienced the Container Store. The Container Store sells containers of all shapes and varieties, designed to solve all varieties of organizational problems. The Container Store also sells something much more important. Walking through the store discovering possibilities it becomes clear that the Container Store actually sells hope–hope that you can actually get your stuff organized and easily accessible, even if for just a day or two.
And, it turns out that much of what we need to keep in our containers and boxes is stuff that we’re not sure what to do with, but we think might be useful at some point in the future. We do the same thing with ideas and discoveries, relying on our intellectual boxes, disciplines and traditions, to keep ideas viable, even when they don’t have any direct or obvious application.
Early on teaching at the University of Texas I worked with a graduate student who studied medieval monastic texts—treatises, guides, handbooks, poetry, and devotionals. This graduate student was running the real risk of becoming a living caricature of the academic who studies something obscure and useless. That is until I met a senior manager at Dell Corporation who was very interested in creating retreats for mid and upper level managers to help them revitalize themselves and their careers. I helped this manager at Dell connect with faculty who did research on management and organizational change. I also connected the manager with this graduate student. And, as it turned out, the graduate student ended up being a key resource, precisely because of their intimate knowledge of how to do a retreat, the long term transformative power of a retreat, and why retreats started in the first place.
Go to any design house, and you will almost certainly find a “bone pile.” The bone pile is the place where all the ideas that don’t work for now get collected with the assumption that they may well help solve a future problem. Designers, like all smart creative folks (and kids), do not like to throw anything away, because they never know what may prove to be useful later. Some design houses even label and categorize their not-yet-useful ideas and designs to make it easier to find them when the time comes.
We often don’t know which ideas are before their time, after their time, or just haven’t found their time. If used well, our intellectual boxes help us maintain ideas while we find new ways to use them. This means that we need to constantly ask ourselves how else we can better use our boxes and what’s in them. What new configurations of boxes (talents, disciplines, experiences, historical perspective) can we create to effectively respond to challenges as they emerge? How can we better network our boxes to become more proficient at moving among them? When our boxes limit us, it is seldom because of the boxes themselves. It is usually because we have become too comfortable and have stopped using our imagination.

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