In Defense of “The Box”

I’m going to throw an idea under the buss here that may upset some people, so just stick with me. You may want to sit down for a moment… here we go. Are you familiar with the concept, “no idea is a bad idea”? The truth is that’s absolutely ridiculous and actually counterproductive when it comes to creative thought and problem solving. That’s the simple truth, and the concept needs to be debunked. I have no idea where this concept originally came from, but it’s crazy. In fact, it’s actually the complete opposite of the actual truth. It’s not just a myth, it’s a flat out lie. Whether we are working on creative problem solving or artistic pieces, what really brings out the best in us is structure. This concept of “think outside of the box” or open and unstructured brainstorming is absurd. We don’t need to think outside of the box, we just need to think inside a different box.

I spent my entire undergraduate degree studying art. Specifically, I studied classical music. I took years of college level music theory, art history, and performance lessons. I diligently studied nearly every documented era of art. You know what the common theme is in each era or each art form? Structure. No matter what type of creative work you are doing, you are always working within a structure. The creativity comes from working with, or trying to work around, that structure. New forms (or boxes) come from altering the structure. Great creative work happens within a box, not outside.

Recently in a Fast Company article authors Dan and Chip Heath wrote, “it’s about time someone spoke up for the box… a well constructed box can help people generate new ideas.” I agree with them, and thus I am speaking out for the box here. If you are working creatively, don’t try to ditch the box. We need that framework to be creative. Additionally, don’t fall victim to the concept that “no idea is a bad idea”. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Most ideas aren’t that good. Regardless of the validity of any idea, the most misunderstood part of ideas is that all you need is a good one. There is a myth around creativity that great works of art and great innovative solutions are all about having that eureka moment. That brilliant stroke of genius.

News flash: it’s not about the idea at all. It’s all about the execution.

We need to drop our romantic love affair with ideas and start one with execution. Ideas are great, but an ability to bring ideas to fruition is the real holy grail. Don’t spend so much time worrying about missing a great idea by limiting the conversation or exploration with a proverbial “box”. Providing this structure and guidelines to creative works gives us a framework to develop within. It allows our mind to focus. It allows us to put our energy towards making something great, instead of just making something at all. Try this little exercise as an example: as fast as you can, name 5 foods you keep refrigerated. If you’re like an average person, it’s hard to do. Your mind just wonders everywhere. Now try this question: name 5 food items in your fridge. Was that easier? Probably, because you had a box. Your mind had a structure to work from, and it allowed you to focus.

The application is basically this: creativity needs structure. Don’t get so caught up in limitless boundaries and sweeping fields of open opportunity. Create a box. If you need to get out then move to another set of limitations, or a new box. Maybe your limitations involve what you and your team do well, the resources you have, or maybe they involve project scope or are anchored in a concrete comparison. For example, being charged with developing a new and trendy toothpaste product for young adults may be difficult. But if you are asked to create the Apple version of toothpaste, the “iPaste” so to speak, this would be easier. It gives you a box to work in. Every great creative work has benefited from structure and/or limitations. Don’t just ditch the box.

If you’d like further assistance in learning to define and use boxes to drive creativity, consider hiring Thrive to come work with you and your team.

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of “The Box”

  1. John Wenger says:

    Micah, thanks for speaking up for ‘the box’. I think we have got to an age where we have become so over-reliant on structures, agenda and documentation that we have got to the point that this has stifled creativity. As a reaction, I have seen a swing to the complete opposite when we hear “We need to think outside the box,” which is interpreted as some kind of admonition to dispose of any structure at all. As I read your article, I got a picture of the model that underpins my work, called the Canon of Creativity. It is a description of how creativity occurs and it is absolutely clear that innovation and novelty does not spring out of nothing, it springs from a “cultural conserve”. This is what was created the last time our spontaneity catalysed something new. It’s a constant loop of creativity, conserve, creativity, conserve, with our innate creative genius catalysed into action by our spontaneity. Spontaneity comes about WITH structure, not without it. As we evolve ourselves and our societies, we are constantly building on what has come before. We grow when we incorporate AND transcend the old. I think we struggle to create when we are given no structure at all. The important thing for me to remember is not to create structures that are so restricting that they inhibit spontaneity. Too much structure=low spontaneity and low creativity. Too little structure (or absence of structure)=anxiety, overwhelm and low creativity. Perhaps a little rambling, this comment, but you have stimulated some good thoughts for me.

    • micahyost says:

      Great input, John.I really like the thoughts on culture. Too much structure can hurt creativity, but creativity is useless without execution. So I think you need to find that line where you are still able to execute and practically move forward with creative thought and innovation ideas. That’s the magic line of “how much structure”. Enough to keep things moving and drive execution. It’s different for every group and person. Further, I think it develops as the team or person develops. A well experienced creative team can have a lot less structure than a new one with little experience. The more we learn and grow together, the more we can let culture take the lead instead of structure.

  2. Micah, the scarry thing is the gap is getting wider between people who are no longer even exercising their ability to think as they are sucked up in tech offerings, as well as those who are obsessed with thinking outside the box, looking for the next best thing and forgetting how to do the basics. I like your reference to your study of music as often people do not realise how important maths is in studying music. Often people just assume pure separation or right brain and left brain activity and that is very naive. There is a reason why we refer to music composed as “the score”

  3. micahyost says:

    You are absolutely correct. Great music is both an art and science, as is most creative work. Our creative thought, problem solving, and innovation needs structure, discipline, and direction. Thanks for your thoughts!

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