Why Most People Can’t Think “Outside the Box”

By Susan Ford Collins

As entrepreneurs we discovered how to think “outside the box,” or we might not have become entrepreneurs to begin with.

Now we need to look at what is holding our organization and investors back, and determine what we can do about it.

First, a quick look at how “The Box” was created

When we were kids, we needed “a protective box”… a parent or teacher there beside us to program “basic life rules and limits” in our minds and bodies so we could safely try and fail, try again and succeed… always look both ways before crossing the street; always follow the rules; always ask permission; and never question authority.

Our leaders repeated our “start up programs” over and over, rewarded us when we used them, and punished us when we didn’t. Their rules and limits kept us safe as we learned and grew. (And, much to our surprise, we keep our kids safe the same way.)

Cows in “electrified” pastures

Like cows that live in electrified fences, we soon figured out how to avoid getting zapped. We learned to stay in our safe area by limiting what we tried, what we wanted, and what we imagined. We made “their limits” “our limits”, at least for a while.

As we gained skills and experience, our parents and teachers began updating our start up programs. “Never speak to strangers” evolved to “Sometimes you have to talk to strangers”. “Never say anything bad about anyone” morphed to “you need to speak up when someone does something that could hurt you or others.” Little by little, our parents expanded “our limits”, and we started expanding some of “their limits” ourselves.

But here’s the problem… always and never

By attaching the words always and never, our caretakers locked some of our programs and never made time to unlock them. And we didn’t update them either. So now some of “their electric fences” are still charged in our bodies and minds… unconscious structures that give us the chills, turn our stomachs, or make us run and hide when we think about doing things we need to do and have the ability to do now. As adults, it’s up to each of us to take a good hard look at what we’re avoiding and why.

Today we live in even more highly-charged fences… money fences

As adults, instead of cookies and lollipops, employers offer financial rewards to incent employees to do what they want them to do, the way they want them to do it, and do it more-better-faster-cheaper. It’s intensely time- and-energy consuming and squashes our creativity and innovation so badly that so some of us “risk the zap” and venture out to start our own businesses.

As entrepreneurs, we seem to be operating “outside that box”, but we aren’t. Now we have investors and payrolls and employees and sub-contractors who depend our making our projections, collecting funds and paying them on time. Now as leaders, we need to learn to recognize when and where we are being limited… and our organization is being limited… and what you can do to optimize our results and theirs.

Success Has Gears

Here is a new perspective on success and leadership that is essential for entrepreneurs.

As we drive, we use gears to move ahead, slowly at first, then more rapidly and easily. As we succeed, we use gears too. No gear is better than any other. All are essential—each one has its own timing and use. Like skilled drivers, we must shift up and down as circumstances require.

1st Gear is for starting and restarting, for becoming effective at anything new. It’s accompanied by a long list of familiar limiting keywords … always/never, can/can’t, safe/dangerous, possible/impossible, right/wrong, good/bad, should/shouldn’t, have to and must. (Keep in mind, the word familiar comes from the word family.)

2nd Gear is for accelerating our productivity and honing our competitive edge, for deleting unneeded 1st Gear rules and developing short cuts. Keywords include… more-better-faster-cheaper, quantity/quality, win/lose, produce/compete, longer hours/higher stress, injury and burnout.

3rd Gear is for moving past the familiar and previously-productive to creativity and innovation. For imagining and intuiting, trusting hunches and embracing chance and serendipity so we can make breakthroughs and discoveries, invent new products, services and approaches.

Leadership has gears too

Each Success Gear has a corresponding Leadership Gear designed to meet the needs of individuals and teams operating in that gear.

When we lead in 1st Gear, we are responsible for supervising, or have others supervise, our employees’ learning, for building self-confidence and enthusiasm. We need to closely supervise their progress and quickly intervene to turn around errors and setbacks and rebuild their self-confidence as needed.

When we lead in 2nd Gear, we manage from more distance. We describe specifically what we want them to accomplish and provide regular appraisals.  Even though we’re not there all the time, we are still in charge, managing by numbers, charts and graphs.

When we lead in 3rd Gear, our job is to support our team’s creative ideas, to help them find expertise and build a powerful start up team. And hold their dreams with them… and even for them… when unexpected setbacks wipe out their dreams temporarily.

Who is responsible for shifting gears? It depends…

1st Gear Leaders are responsible for determining when we’re ready to shift to 2nd. They train, supervise, test, graduate, certify and license us. We learn early on to wait for their permission to gear up. But the shift from 2nd to 3rd is one we must make ourselves, in our own timing. To be ready, we have to update enough old limits and build enough self-confidence and experience to trust our creative ideas and our ability to explore new territory, and lead others there with us.

In today’s business world, most of us spend most of our time accelerating in 2nd. And most of our coworkers are accelerating in 2nd with us, squeezing out the time needed to gear up to hothouse new ideas and approaches (3rd), and down to learn and relearn skills, information and technologies (1st).

Over the years we’ve developed gear-habits

In your organization, which people prefer 1st Gear where rules and limits are clearly set and closely supervised? Which ones prefer doing more-better-faster, working long and hard to earn promotions and bonuses… sometimes making productivity and competition more important than future thinking and creativity? Which people in your organization are ready to gear up? And which ones need to gear down to relearn? Or start elsewhere?

As leaders we have gear habits too, underusing or overusing one gear or the other to the detriment of the organization as a whole. When financial “push comes to shove”, instead of leading individuals “out of the box”, listening and supporting new ideas, do you sometimes subtly… or not so subtly… incent your employees to stay inside? Do you over-reward or disproportionately bonus more-better-faster 2nd gear behaviors? And under-reward the 1st gear learning and relearning your organization needs to keep up? What incentives and support systems does your organization have in place for nourishing the new ideas and approaches you will need for success in the future?

Where is “your box”?

Throughout our lives, we expand and contract “our boxes”… in illness and injury, when relationships begin and end, when unforeseen circumstances knock us for a loop. The key question for you now is: Is your box, and organization’s box, BIG ENOUGH to include room for all three gears? For success now… and in the future?

Susan Ford Collins…“America’s Premier Success and Leadership Coach” CNN… is the creator of THE TECHNOLOGY of SUCCESS, the powerful leadership system used in more than 3,000 training programs in major corporations and organizations, in startups and turnarounds. Audiences begged Susan to write about the 10 Success Skills so after shadowing Highly Successful People (HSPs) for 20 years and coaching them for 20 more, she wrote The Joy of Success, Success Has Gears, and Our Children Are Watching, all now available on Amazon. www.susanfordcollins.com or www.technologyofsuccess.com