Ways to think & act outside the box


Here’s the question – how do we get out of here? Imprisoned by our own assumptions and experience; thinking and acting differently is no mean feat.

When it comes to critical, innovative or disruptive thinking, experience – a much-prized commodity in most hierarchies – is actually our Achilles heel, it gets in the way. Throughout my military career, especially outside the unique environment of Special Forces I was surprised and ultimately disillusioned by the Army’s inability to think and act creatively – trapped as it was by the weight of its own experience. But the problem with experience in fast paced dynamic environments full of complexity and opportunity is that it thinks it knows. When it fact it is easily deceived by apparent familiarity seeing patterns where really none exist.

‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them’ Albert Einstein

At a recent workshop for senior executives, delegates were challenged to come up with creative and innovative ideas. The group opted to brainstorm the problem – at the end of which they had a bunch of ideas, which it would be fair to say were predictable examples of in the box thinking. In other words they were constrained in their thinking by everything they assumed about the problem. The same thing Einstein was talking about. In this group, which I would describe as highly typical there was one big barrier to moving forward, and that was an absence of conflict.


Lots of businesses use brain storming as a method to try and develop new thinking, but the last thing that usually occurs is a storm. Most businesses and teams are incapable of this critical behaviour because it’s too high risk. Engaging in conflict runs the danger of disrupting harmony and hurting people’s feelings. Prizing harmony, we avoid the conflict and all nod politely at everyone else’s ideas. In contrast teams that are able to argue constructively – a behaviour that demands extremely strong trust bonds – are able to exploit two critical requirements for disruptive thinking. They are able to generate raw material in the form of ideas and they are able to work with this to actually develop good ideas.


There is a seismic process to most good ideas, in other words they are created out of being squashed, squeezed, compressed, pulled apart and put back together. This process needs the heat of argument and conflict to challenge, pull down, tear apart and recombine the broken pieces. It is amazing to me how consistently in my SF experience good ideas came out of a process of smashing together a bunch of poor ideas. The reason Special Forces can be highly original and innovative is because culturally they are encouraged to engage in this process of constructive dissent.


The first step to thinking outside of the box is recognising the box you’re actually in, what is the nature of your reality? What are the assumptions, the general truths & the clichés of your business? The SAS in WWII began their innovative thinking career by working out that the best way of defeating the enemies Air Force was not by using the planes of the RAF but by sending small raiding parties deep behind enemy lines to destroy the planes and their pilots and ground crew at the enemies airfields – the place they felt safest. Start working out what everyone does and then ask what would happen if we did the opposite? What would happen if..?

You need to experiment – start acting outside of the box by doing something. Of course you have a bunch of wild hypotheses from pulling apart your assumptions and everyone will have an opinion about what would happen. But the truth is you don’t know until you try and the purpose of an experiment is to keep it small (which contains the risks) and use it to learn. The thing about failing is that it’s the inseparable twin of effective learning. You’ll probably be wrong at the start, but the point is to be right at the end.


Metris Leadership helps businesses build high performance teams, optimized for the challenges of the 21st Century because great teams provide standout competitive advantage.

To find out how we could help you contact us at info@metrisleadership.com

Related Posts

Climbers contemplating a boulder problem
How to be a world class failure (& why it matters to your team).

Are you good at failure? As a team or as an individual it’s likely you find this an odd question. It’s also likely that in your team you don’t like it, try hard to avoid it, quite possibly try to cover it up if it happens, and certainly avoid highlighting…

Read more
An SAS Definition of Leadership

David Gilbert-Smith was an exceptional Rugby player with caps for Scotland who went on to serve as an army Officer, winning a Military Cross in Korea and subsequently serving in the SAS as a Troop Commander and the Regimental Training Officer. Gilbert-Smith defined leadership as; ‘Using your personal power to…

Read more
Too busy Judging when we should be developing

We have been working with several groups of leaders recently who are in the midst of the annual cycle of performance reviews. This often involves talent identification, evaluations and various pigeonholing tools like 9-box grids, success circles and values matrices.   My problem is not simply with the tools or…

Read more
Accidental Leadership – Unbundling the App

For most leaders the process of becoming a leader is accidental. You start a career and build technical competence. If you are good at what you do there often comes a point when you get given responsibility for other people, which in theory at least, means you are now a…

Read more