The exhortation to think outside the box has become ubiquitous in business. So much so that it has become the new box inside of which everyone thinks. It pays lip service to the notion of transformation without really understanding the difference between transformation and change, and often without tolerance for the real thinking that must occur for an idea to be truly outside the existing paradigm.
But worse than that, the advice is backwards. You cannot possibly think outside the box unless you understand the nature of the box that bounds your current thinking. You must come to know that nature deeply. You must have real insight into it. You must accept it, and embrace it at some level, before it will ever release you.
There's a Zen saying, "What you resist persists, and what you allow to be disappears." Thinking outside the box without understanding the box is a petulant exercise in resistance — every idea that comes from the process has the box written all over it. It's a reaction to the box. It's fighting the box. It's a child of the box. Zune was Microsoft trying to think outside the box, which they saw as the lack of a product to compete with the iPod. The doomed MP3 player became a monument to the real box, which was Microsoft's inability to innovate. It was screaming so hard "Look, we're innovative" that it never had a chance of being anything but the antithesis of innovation.
In our work at my firm, Advertising for Humanity, we always start by trying to grasp the nature of the box within which we're thinking. It is a process bordering on meditation. If you're not calm, it won't come to you. The box thrives on your impatience with it.
Years ago, after I had created California AIDS Ride and the other AIDS Rides around the country, we were still struggling for a pithy slogan to describe the incredibly rich, philanthropic, selfless, and yet paradoxically self-nourishing experience that those events were for people. The events themselves were the result of a meditation on a particular kind of box — that box being charities' always asking people to do the least they could do for their causes. In fact, the charitable-event business was in a race to the bottom to see how little they could ask people to do. Instead of just accepting gifts, charities started making gifts — bribes you might say — to get people to support them: jackets and tote bags and all kinds of other prizes. Once I understood the dynamic, I realized that charities had it backwards. We started asking people to do the most they could do — pedal their bikes 600 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, sleep in a tent, ride in the rain and the mud, and raise a minimum of $2,000 for the privilege, with no tote bags, toasters, or other prizes for their efforts. They raised more money, more quickly for AIDS than any event had in history.
But our slogans in the first two years sucked: "The adventure of a lifetime." Or, "Challenge yourself, and you will grow," and so on. We began to ask ourselves what we were afraid of. What was the box we were trying to avoid? We realized that we didn't want people to think the events were too hard — we were afraid we'd scare people off. That was the box confining us. And with that insight, the slogan came to us in a word: impossible. For the average person, these events are impossible. The slogan had been right under our noses all along, sitting inside that box. We saw that there were two words in that one, and our new slogan became two things in one, almost like one of those pictures whose image changes when you move your head to the left or the right: "I'mpossible." It embodied the deepest truth about the events: that they were impossible, yes, but that in that impossibility you could discover a possibility you never knew existed in yourself. The word was autological.
We never looked back, nor did our customers, who took it on as their life mission statements.
When we were asked to design an event for prostate cancer, the organization felt that a bike ride would be the butt of too many jokes. (Pun dynamics there are infinite.) Instead of resisting that, we leaned into it, so the headline became, "Four out of five men will make jokes about this. The fifth will be diagnosed with prostate cancer." In the breast cancer fundraising field, it's all about who can out-hope the competition. Hope, hope, hope is the mantra everywhere. So our campaign for the National Breast Cancer Coalition became: "We're giving up hope." The message was that hope is not what overcomes great obstacles. Deadlines and commitment do. And the organization has committed itself to an end to breast cancer in 10 years.
A new campaign we developed focuses on the touchy issue of overhead in the humanitarian sector. Instead of running from it, the campaign embraces it, with ads that show a person looking into camera, stating, "I'm overhead," and the meat of the ad explaining what that person does and how fundamental it is to the cause — the subtext being that overhead is a catalyst for the growth of our favorite charities, not a drain on it.
So figure out the box you're in. If you try to get out before you understand the box's parameters, you'll just stay stuck inside of it. And that's exactly what it wants.
Dan Pallotta is an expert in nonprofit sector innovation and a pioneering social entrepreneur. He is the founder of Pallotta TeamWorks, which invented the multiday AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days. He is the president of Advertising for Humanity and the author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential.
Thanks to Dan Pallotta / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing
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