Management clichés: ‘Let’s think outside the box!’

It’s funny how related ideas can appear in different places in the space of a few days and really capture your imagination.  About a week ago I read a fascinating article in Inc about a software company where the executive team, having come up with a shortlist of three candidates for the post of the organisation’s first-ever CEO, gave the staff the final decision about whom to appoint.  Following question and answer sessions, all staff voted anonymously, and the person who gained the most votes got the job.

A few days later, I was listening to BBC Radio’s Four Thought and caught a talk where it was suggested that the answer to the poor management that blights the lives of many people is to allow them to choose who they want as their boss.  Despite fears that individuals might choose someone who would be soft on them, companies that have tried this found that people actually go for someone who challenges them to perform at their best.

Both are great examples of audacious thinking that questions the assumptions about how successful companies are run. Both make a statement about the organisational culture, how employees’ views are not just valued but are critical, and in turn challenge managers to act differently.  The person that became the CEO of the software company for example, although collaborative by nature, said the manner of his appointment “makes me work even harder to persuade people and to be more persuadable”.

My excitement at hearing stories like these is dampened by the realisation that this kind of openness to radically different ideas is rare.  Many organisations say they want to do things differently and encourage people to ‘think outside the box’, but their actions betray a reluctance to do anything daring.  People are recruited from different backgrounds in the hope that they will bring something fresh with them, only to be told time after time that ‘that won’t work here’.  Managers are sent on leadership development programmes, but are then given only very limited scope for applying any of the new ideas they’ve picked up.  Small pockets of staff are encouraged to indulge in ‘blue-sky thinking’ in order to develop new products or ways of delighting the customer, but the way the organisation has traditionally been run is left untouched.  Thinking outside the box is fine, as long as the larger box within which it’s contained is left very much in tact.

If organisations really want people to think outside the box, they need to encourage them to look outside the box for inspiration (for starters, hre’s Inc’s list of the Twenty-five Most Audacious Companies of the Year).  When presented with something unusual or different, many people’s first reaction is to think of why that won’t work; a more healthy approach might be to adopt the elected CEO’s attitude, working hard to be more persuadable.