Fred watched quietly as the room filled on this gloomy Thursday morning. The line at the coffee pot at the back of the conference room made it clear to him that most were there out of obligation rather than by choice. The few people that seemed to be there by choice were today overshadowed by those that were going to make the meeting more painful than normal. But Fred was up for the challenge, or so he thought.

Just like in most recurring events, people tend to take their usual seat. Church, the subway and Fred’s regular staff meeting all had this one thing in common. As people did that, they were met with a picture of a box on the white board. A few criticized Fred’s poor attempt at art and uneven lines, while others sat nervously curious, considering that Fred was as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. Others did not even notice the drawing as they were too busy chatting.

As Fred called the meeting to order, the group sensed the hesitations in his voice. It was immediately evident that something was going to be different today. There was no agenda on the table in front of them. Odd. There were no sales reports printed out for the world to see. Even odder.

After Fred’s call to order, the confused, thick silence was something that the group had never experienced before. Everyone in the room knew that Fred was from the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school.

Fred finally said these words. “Today, we are going to think outside the box.” Anyone who was not looking at Fred before he spoke was now staring intently.

My guess is that we have all heard these words or said these words at various times in our lives. But what does it really mean and what things do we need to consider when saying these words? Let’s look at what some of the people in the room were thinking as Fred said these words.

  1. Old School – He and Fred had gone way back together. They used to have joining territories “back in the day.” Mr. Old School was in complete agreement with Fred’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way of doing business. You might have one of these on your team. This person till likes to use a number two pencil, hand-writes everything and thinks that the Internet is just a fad! On a more serious note, these people can be some of the worst creativity-killers in the room. As soon as Mr. Old School thinks about thinking outside the box, his palms sweat and he again considers retirement as a better alternative. Instant shutdown.
  2. Policy – She and Fred seemed to get along quite well together, considering she knew the ins and outs of every company policy. Her response to creativity and change within the organization was the same each time: “That is just the way we do things around here!” She stymied any type of forward thinking from anyone in the group. After all, we have been in business for 64 years and Mrs. Policy seemed to have been there for all of them! Gold-shag carpet and company ash trays were still in her office, though on countless occasions she had been asked if she wanted new carpeting and no one has smoked in the office for years.
  3. Pessimist – “This will never work,” was the typical response to anything that was new to the group. She liked to control everything and each thing had their own box. She felt secure in knowing that nothing will ever be outside of a box, especially with Fred. All boxes have lids on them to securely keep everything inside. While she was relieved to see the box drawn on the whiteboard, it was a little unsettling for her to think of why it up there in the first place.
  4. Procrastinator – “Can we talk about this new idea at our next meeting?” That was his request to Fred, and Fred generally agreed. The problem was that this seemed to be going on so long that he could not remember the last time anything new was implemented, which was just fine for Mr. Procrastinator. His sales showcased the affect this was having on him. His pipeline was always full, but his close ratio was weak as he allowed so many to procrastinate. Imagine that!
  5. Risk Free“You cannot steal second without taking your foot off first base!” She cringed every time someone would say, “You cannot steal second without taking your foot off first base!” To her, “We made it to first base, let’s just stay here,” was more like it. She took great comfort in residing in that box. Just the sight of the box on the whiteboard brought her relief. “Why would anyone in the right mind want to leave the comfort of the box?” was the question that she wrestled with every day. As she thought deeper, fear gripped her as she considered why the box was on the board.
  6. SidelineHe was always one of the last ones on board with any idea. He sat in meetings and only spoke if specifically asked a question. His opinion followed the group’s. If they were on board then he would follow. He was never first in line nor was he last. His sales were always in the bottom 1/3, but never last. Whatever box the team was in, you found Mr. Sideline there. His head was never up high enough to take any of the enemy fire. He flew under the radar the best he could, and it seemed that there were many like him.
  7. Underpaid “You don’t pay me enough to think,” were the words rattling around in her brain. She focused in on the one word, “think,” and went off from there. Normally, she was outspoken about, “this place” but today, the box drawing and the fact that she just received a verbal warning about her attitude gave her enough peace of mind to keep her comments to herself. “I have plenty of other things to think about,” she told herself as Fred continued to talk…catching every fourth word that Fred said.
  8. Out of ControlHe and Fred never really saw eye to eye as Fred was never fast enough to keep up with him. He was always late to Fred’s meetings and moved toward anything that shined. “Who needs a box at all?” was his question. “Boxes are so constricting, limiting and have no purpose,” he rambled. “I am happy to throw the box away and let’s just all do whatever seems right in our own eyes.” He would regularly volunteer to anyone that would stay in his office long enough to listen to him.
  9. Fresh Air – She was the one that was smiling and always in a positive mood. She was, by far, the best employee that Fred had. Excited to try something new, happy to help others along the way, and always had a kind word for anyone that needed it. She sat upright at the meeting, took great notes, offered her opinions when asked and complimented others for their bright ideas. She was all in when it came to thinking outside the box.

So, do yourself a favor today and think about the following:

  1. Think about which of these are the healthiest for you to be.
  2. Pick out which one from the above list you are. If you want extra credit, ask your co-worker and/or boss which one that you are to confirm your selection.
  3. Send me an Email at and ask me to send you my 12 tips to thinking outside the box. They are truly “outside the box!”

1 Comment

  1. Great article Dave! You really captivated me and made me think! I’m fresh air. 🙂

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