The discourse of business creativity, although often absurd in its most extreme cases, clearly addresses a growing and legitimate concern with the limitations of conventional management logic. And to be fair, many elements of thinking outside the box do deliver results for companies. Brainstorming, for example, is a great tool for generating a large variety of ideas on problems that are clearly defined and have a low bandwidth—ideas for product variations, product names, company or product slogans, alternative ways to solve a practical problem, lists of user attributes, and so on. The whole setup of the creative off-site workshop—complete with icebreakers, fast idea development, and energetic teamwork—has a big impact on team performance, knowledge sharing, the sense of involvement, and just plain fun at work. But it is not useful for helping executives understand why a series of product launches failed, say, or what is to be done when an entire business is hemorrhaging money quarter after quarter, or how to understand and then bet on the future.
The problem with the thinking-outside-the-box approach is neither its intention nor its tools and processes. The essential fallacy of the approach is its promise to deliver idea generation that is fast, efficient, repeatable, simple, and risk-free. Getting people right requires a deeper investigation into human behavior as well as a longer gestation period for creative ideas. It often requires training and background knowledge or experience. And unlike the tidiness of a thinking-outside-the-box off-site workshop, it is messy. Breakthrough insights aren’t manufactured like widgets in a factory. They dawn on us in nascent form, like the sight of a vague shape on the horizon. They are first present in our mind and bodies in a preverbal state, an inkling, a feeling. Some refer to this as the “slow hunch.” Einstein wasn’t satisfied with the relativity theory handed down to him by Galileo, for example. He couldn’t articulate why. He just had a hunch that the holes in the theory might prove interesting if he pursued them.