Are You Boxed In?

By Chris Chittenden

"There is no great genius without a mixture of madness."

… Aristotle (384BC – 322BC) Greek Philosopher

Think outside the square! How many times have you heard people say that? I know I have heard more times than I care to remember. There seems little doubt that innovation is one of the most prized qualities for many people and organisations, yet it is probably one of the most elusive.

Think of the people in history who have been truly innovative. People like Albert Einstein, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. People who changed the way we look at the world and opened our eyes to new possibilities. In the context of the billions of people who have lived on the planet, they are few and far between. And these people didn't think outside the square, they didn't seem to have a square.

Why do some people think so radically differently to the rest? After all, most human beings are able to see possibilities when we look for them. Maybe the answer lies in something else. Maybe the challenge to be innovative may be less about our capacity to see new possibilities and more about our inability to escape the square. So what is the square?

It seems to me that the square is what we already believe we know to be true. It is our answers to life. We may be able to articulate that truth or it may lay deeply hidden in our basic assumptions about life. With that in mind, the square may be visible or invisible to us. This is a useful distinction. When we can see the square, we can see beyond. When we cannot see it, we are trapped and do not know it. Even when we can see the boundaries of the square, it is often hard to look beyond them.

One of the keys to escaping the square lies in a simple stance. Do we always demand answers or are we prepared to live in the question? Throughout our life, we have been constantly taught to give the answer. At school, we were not graded on how great were our questions but how well we were able to answer other people's questions in the way they wanted. At work, we were told to not come to the boss with problems but with solutions. Throughout life, many of us have been rewarded for responding in the right way. We seek to employ people who work the same way and who fit in with the rest of us. We talk about the desire for embracing differences, then do little about it particularly in regard to people who do not think the same as us.

Another key to escaping the square relates to understanding the difference between what is true and what is our opinion of something or someone. All too often people hold their opinion as fact. In doing so, they put themselves into a situation where they see their opinions as immutable and create a square that is even more difficult to transcend.

If we wish to be more innovative, it is important to be more willing to embrace the idea of living in the question and the uncertainty that goes with it. It can also be valuable to explore our basic assumptions and be willing to admit that our opinions are just that - opinions. Ultimately, we can seek to be better prepared to see the square in which we live and allow ourselves to live beyond it.

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© 2014 Chris Chittenden