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Flat pack not 'out of the box'

By Michel Poelman - posted Friday, 3 February 2012

Have you worked in a company where the boss declares that the company is 'innovative' and where the company "values creative and out-of-the-box thinking"?

You probably have; it is one of the most ubiquitous company slogans. Read the ads on a job-site and most of them are from 'innovative and fun' companies looking for someone who 'thinks outside the box'. If you work for such a company you are also likely to have some difficulty in discerning where and how management achieves, supports and develops such 'innovative and fun' culture and how it encourages out-of the-box thinking.

Although the term out-of-the-box-thinking is used to describe creative thinking that is free from the constraints of convention, I associate 'out-of-the-box' more with 'ready-made' and 'pre-fab'; in other words with thinking that is delivered like Domino's pizza or a big-Mac. 'Innovation' and 'out-of-the-box thinking' are too often used to evoke a superficial emotional response from the target audience, e.g. potential future employees, investors, customers or voters. Today, out-of-the-box thinking looks more like thinking that comes in a box.


But innovation has never been more important than today according to research published in the Global Innovation Barometer, which GE Capital released on January 18, 2012.

The Barometer interviewed 1,000 C-level managers in 12 countries and found that 950 of them regard innovation as the most critical factor in creating a more competitive national economy and in job-creation.

A clear majority (690) value out-of–the-box thinkers (key to innovation) more than pure scientific research.

Yet, if you look around in your business, you probably find that most staff is guided towards conformity rather than inspired to think creatively and to communicate their ideas effectively.

If you are like most of us, then you probably find that working within the margins of conformity is a safer path for a steady career progression. Don't rock the boat too much, go with the flow, survive and prosper.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review backs you up if you choose to assimilate. According to HBR most managers sort their subordinates into an in-group and an out-group, largely based on like/dislike first impressions. If you are in the out-group, the boss is less likely to notice your accomplishments and more likely to notice your failures, because this justifies and reinforces the original, often unconscious, 'decision' to place you in the out-group.


People who think differently are often ridiculed or ignored. High-level creative thinkers can only thrive in a culture that is supportive of creativity and few organisations have one. The in-group/out-group categorisation is one of the obstacles in the way of developing a culture that supports innovation.

On the other hand, not all ideas are worth considering, and no organisation wants to spend much time and effort on poor ideas whilst continuously being careful not to tread on people's sensitive toes. A culture that supports innovation has to be efficient and effective.

Lifting the level of critical and creative thinking to achieve a more innovative culture, senior management must adopt a framework of higher-order thinking. Similar to applying a framework of rules and conditions to facilitate the function of accounting, organisations can implement a framework that supports innovation.

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About the Author

Michel Poelman is the Principal of Thinking4Results, a boutique consultancy that provides workshops and consulting to help clients develop high-order thinking. You can email him at

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