Thinking in New Boxes – review

Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business CreativityThinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity by Luc de Brabandere

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In 2000, I was in grad school at Texas A&M and got an email from the XO of the Navy ROTC unit we were administratively attached to: “Your boss is in town tonight…might want to think about going.” The “boss” he was referring to was Rear Admiral Lou Smith, Commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command and Chief of the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), who was talking that night at the local Society of American Military Engineers. So, my two CEC cohorts also in grad school and I uniformed up and went. I’d been on the receiving end of many of RADM Smith’s talks. He was a dynamic, engaging, funny Navy leader, and I’d heard most of what he was saying recently, so the brain was wandering trying to solve some Navier-Stokes thing when I heard him say, “…Thinking outside the box. I hate that phrase!” I sat up, thinking, “I like that phrase…why don’t you like it?” Of course he read my mind, and continued, “Let me tell you why I hate it… I’m in DC sitting at a table with a bunch of admirals, and they’re whining about not having enough funds and they don’t know what to do to get more. I say, ‘Let’s go rob some banks!’ For whatever reason some of them took me seriously and complained that we couldn’t do that, to which I said, ‘Why not? We have all the guns.’ So you see,” and he waggled a finger at the crowd, “there is a box!”

That stuck with me, obviously, and when I came across this book, I thought “Finally! Someone gets it!” Except…Messrs. de Brabandere and Iny kind of didn’t. Oh, they thought they did, uh…the book?, obviously, but …

A lot of time explaining our resistances to thinking in new boxes, from failure to categorize information correctly (the authors presume, of course, that there must be a “correct” way…) to so-called “Eureka” moments. They said

Eureka moments can entail product or process innovations, like Apple’s invention of the iPhone or Toyota’s postwar development of its formidable, industry-challenging “lean” manufacturing strategies.

Huh? They clearly do not understand “Eureka”… confusing it with “necessity” (Toyota – limited real estate for storing pseudo-infinite amounts of materials like the American manufacturers) and “how about this?” (Apple). Isaac Asimov said

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’

(In case some fan thinks I’m being picky, the authors’ examples throughout this book are just as off.) Anyway, here is their “powerful” five-step approach to thinking in new boxes:
1. Doubt Everything
2. Probe the Possible
3. Diverge
4. Converge
5. Reevaluate Relentlessly

“Doubt Everything”??- WTH? Okay, the suggestion to question what you think you know makes great sense (and is nothing new). But to advocate doubting everything is plain absurd and a time waster – selectively doubt and question what needs it, but not everything. Worse than that, a primary example used to drive this home was Dick Fosbury’s innovative high jump technique and the doubt that others had until he won gold. Interesting example, but flawed. Fosbury didn’t doubt. Well, he did doubt that he could get any higher the traditional way. The authors say themselves in telling the story that Fosbury forced himself to experiment with different techniques. Its a stretch to confuse persistence with “doubting everything”.

The rest are just rehashes of the obvious, done elsewhere better. But as is to be expected, they do have few white board fodder strewed throughout.

Here’s the bottom line (my bottom line…not quite what the authors are trying to sell): there is always a box…change up how you try to move from the one you’re in to another…and never rely on one set of “powerful” tools…there’s a big universe out there…keep looking.

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