Wednesday, February 15, 2012


It is February 2012, a short month. I want to write briefly about boxes. How often have you heard the admonition to “think outside the box?” In my view, this phrase has won its place in the Cliché Hall of Fame, Business Section. The meaning is to think both creatively and unconventionally. Its origins are unclear although there is consensus that it derives from a solution to a puzzle first published around 1914 called The Nine Dots, where you are challenged to draw a single line through each dot without lifting your pencil from the paper. The solution is to go beyond the perceived boundaries of the puzzle – hence “outside the box.” A number of consultants and business writers in the 60’s and 70’s claim to have translated this notion into the general management advice employed today.

In any case the phrase is now ubiquitous and I find at times used to disparage the thinking of managers and/or boards who, in the opinion of the “advisor” are too conservative or hidebound. I have been in meetings where the attendees are sternly admonished to think Outside the Box. The reactions are sometimes amusing. Some people almost assume the physical attitude of Rodin’s “The Thinker” –others are puzzled and some are defensive, immediately throwing out ideas they hope might alight somewhere beyond the box.

At the risk of being too literal I suggest there should be a first step: what’s in the box right now? Shouldn’t those contents be analyzed so that everyone concerned will understand what might ultimately qualify as being “outside?” And maybe a creative idea is within the present box, like the Peter Drucker’s “systematic and purposeful abandonment” of programs I described in my December 2011 blog. The Outside the Box directive is useful in encouraging new thinking provided the “old” thinking is not summarily devalued. At the core of this approach is THINK, the old IBM company mantra, regardless of an idea’s location relative to the box.

The second box I want to discuss is the sandbox. There are instances where some nonprofit board members are tempted to take advantage of their positions to espouse and even personally act on pet theories about management techniques and programs, often usurping the authority of the CEO in doing so. In these cases the non-profit becomes like a sandbox, open for play. Board chairs in in particular have to be vigilant in confining board members’ activity to the essentials: financial sustainability, policy development and the hiring and/or firing of the CEO. If the weakness of the CEO has invited sandbox play, that becomes a legitimate issue for board review.

My final box is in the nature of a commercial. Not far from where I live and work is the remarkable Dia Beacon (NY), a facility for contemporary art on the Hudson housed in a former Nabisco box printing factory. At close to 300,000 square feet, it is a world –class museum and well worth a visit. When you do so you can witness firsthand the result of thinking “outside the box” - literally.