Box vs Out-of-the-Box Thinking

box        John Alston

Box Thinking

A few years back, I had a great opportunity, during one of our planning sessions, to take notice of a particular “world” view held by a facilitator. The session was an emergency management development group.  It was sponsored by a dear friend and was facilitated by two other individuals.  These persons were not from our agency or group.  They were not familiar with its culture and underpinnings. They led us on different approaches to arrive at some of the decisions that we had to make.  That was the great part!  I like learning new methods and challenging some ideas that may have outlived their usefulness.

However, the not-so-great part was that, as the days went on, I got a sense that one of the facilitators may have been harboring a little negative, possibly condescending, attitude.  It was noticeable, in his comments and gestures.  I tried to shake it, because anyone can have a bad day (theirs or yours).  First impressions, although are usually “spot on”, can sometimes be misleads.  You have to give presenters a chance. People who make presentations to others know that you have to warm up the room, get a read and then proceed.  You may have to change methods, tactics and directions to get your room to “buy-in”. But I digress!  Okay, this guy bothered me. The feeling I had just wouldn’t go away.  As the days went on into multiphase sessions, that sense increased.   I thought, “Hey, this guy doesn’t know us.”.

Then, it happened:  One of my colleagues made a suggestion.  It was a great idea, by the way. It was based on sound past practices. It seemed feasible.  It was succinct.  But the response from the facilitator was, “Well, you’re just not an “Out-of-the-Box thinker”.   I then saw my colleague retreat and shut down.

You’re just not an out of the box thinker? I thought to myself; the way that statement was delivered was condescending. It seemed as if he was saying to the person, “You’re not that creative”, ; “You’re not that bright!, “You’re not intelligent enough.”, “You’re not that flexible.” You’re rigid. You don’t know what we know.  YOU’RE NOT THINKING!   I took umbrage to that and I didn’t like it either. 😉

When you tell someone that they’re not an out-of-the-box thinker,  it shouldn’t be a negative.

I find that “Box” and “Out-of-the-box” thinkers are both needed in planning situations and emergency management.  In our day-to-day situations, Box Thinkers are very clear on their roles and responsibilities. They are clear on the “space” they occupy.  They can prove to be invaluable, under many circumstances.  They have full knowledge of their position in the organization and are detail oriented.

If you’re going to be a “Box Thinker”, though, be sure to handle everything within the box.

I know it may seem like an abstract analogy but follow me for a little while.  Be clear on where your box fits into the entire operation.  Know the relationship and responsibilities that your box has to the other boxes adjacent to, below and above your box.

EXAMPLE: If you’re a company officer and your “box” is being on the Ladder Company; “Handle everything within your box!  If your task, that day, is to perform search & rescue then handle everything in your box!  If you’re assigned to be the supervisor, on the third floor or division three of the building, then you are responsible for everything within that box.  Fire suppression, search and rescue, ventilation, salvage, pre-&post- control overhaul, etc.  Know the  authority, resources and tools that are necessary for the box, completely.  If your box is ventilation; then you should know everything there is to know about Ventilation: positive pressure, negative pressure, hydraulic, mechanical, natural, vertical, horizontal.  You need to know when to apply what and at what appropriate time.  Handle everything within that box.

When you’re an out-of-the-box thinker it means that you have the ability or the wherewithal to step outside of the norm; or you just decided to think of things in a different way.  That doesn’t make you a better thinker than the people who do think within the box.

EXAMPLE:  If your box is OPERATIONS, at an incident, and you are the Operations Section Chief…handle everything within your box.  Assign the necessary tasks, establish the correct groups, place them in and on the proper divisions.  Call up the appropriate resources.  Provide for accountability and safety measures.  Monitor progress.  Be clear on your communications, directions and requests.  Staff all required positions.  Use checklists.    And…and…and…


Additionally, to be an “Out-of-the-box” thinker means that you can take the conventional methods, the tried and true methods and apply them in a different way.  You may have the ability not use the conventional methods at all and still realize a successful outcome.  You know the standards.  You just look at the situation in a different way. You may want to come up with a different or alternative means to perform the same task.  You may very well look at things completely different.

In Emergency Management, when you think outside of the box you are still utilizing box thinking to formulate your idea.  You have to.  Think of it as a Stringed Quartet vs. a Jazz Quartet.  It’s still music.  One is very structured and the other more improvisational and yet they still utilize some of the same instruments, chords and notes to produce the final sound that they desire.  It can even be the same song or piece of music.  Very often the stringed quartet can make improvisations or perform different interpretations to the classical pieces.

“Out-of-the-Box thinking” is no greater than “Box thinking”, when it’s done completely. It just means that we have different approaches to achieving a successful outcome..

I think they’re both great and I that any individual can possess both characteristics of a “Box or Out-of-the-Box thinker.

Which one are you and why do you think so?