Stop thinking outside of the box

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Trying to think outside of the box is impossible. It is like trying to not think of pink polar bears.

Don't do it. No pink polar bears.

Of course you just thought of pink polar bears! You probably have them dancing in your head right now.

So what happens if someone tells us to think outside of the box? Our brains shut down completely. The area outside of the box is vast. Therefore our focus is drawn to making sure we are outside of the box rather than homing in on new solutions.

Recently I met with luxury marketing executives and they were challenged with coming up with a new way of thinking about luxury. Nobody could do it.

But when I asked them how they would change their brands if Amazon became a luxury retailer or if the definition of luxury were "beautiful utility" the group couldn't contain themselves, and they originated a slew of creative ideas.

The trick is to change boxes, not to think outside of them.

As Alan Iny and Luc De Brabandere put it in Thinking in New Boxes, we must "learn to think in new boxes, which means deliberately (not just subconsciously) creating a range of fresh mental models, and methodically exploring and prioritizing them."

Creating boxes is a lot easier than ignoring them.

One way we create boxes is through developing scenarios of the future.

Trends today foreshadow the reality of tomorrow, but we don't know exactly how they will turn out. We use these trends and uncertainties to create visions of possible futures. These scenarios provide a rich context within which we and our clients can imagine opportunities, risks and solutions.

Creating scenarios involves four broad steps:

  1. Identify major trends and uncertainties by observing what is happening in the world around you. This can be an exercise of a couple of hours or can take months depending on how deeply you want to go.

  2. Summarize the uncertainties into two (sometimes three) primary uncertainties. These should be relevant to your business and should be big tectonic shifts. In the luxury example above, Amazon moving into the luxury space is just such a shift.

  3. Use a Cartesian plane or another design to plot your uncertainties against each other and ask yourself what uncertainties developing together in a certain ways would lead to.

  4. Name the scenarios and develop detailed stories that bring the scenarios to life.

Creating scenarios can be detailed and take months, or can be high level and take an afternoon. The important thing is to challenge your thinking, challenge your understanding of your market and provide a box for creative thinking.

But whatever you do, do not think of pink polar bears.

That will drive you nuts.

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