Thinking Inside the Box

We have all heard and been encouraged to think outside of the box. This phrase conveys looking at things in a new way.  

Thinking inside the box is embracing the constraints around you. Especially right now as individuals and businesses, we have added constraints placed upon us.  According to the LeadStar team, we still don’t need to halt our creative and problem-solving abilities, it is about focusing on the “here I am… now” mindset. Through a child’s eyes, if you were stuck indoors due to bad weather, the living room furniture suddenly becomes a vast fort to build and conquer.

Thinking outside of the box will make sense only when you know what is inside the box. One might ask what is the box? According to an article by Business Journals, the box is the “thing” you are dealing with and the relationships that make it into some kind of whole. True leadership comes from understanding what is inside the box. Inside the box are the goals and objectives that need to be achieved.

Five things Leaders need to do:

1.            Define the box

What is the nature of the problem? Think of the problem as relationships and the various parts that make that relationship.  Leaders can constrain the problem but not the potential ways of solving it.

2.            Measure the box

                What is the strength /weakness of the problem?

3.            Acknowledge “I don’t know”

It is okay to not have all the answers. When a customer has a problem, they receive it better when you say “I don’t know… but I will check for you.”

Recently I needed some office supplies. While at the store, I couldn’t remember the model number for the toner replacement. I asked the employee if they could pull up the business account and check the order history. Imagine my surprise when I was told “I can’t do that.” I was stunned, this employee even asked the manager who said the same thing. Frustrated I asked the manager, “You mean to tell me with all the computers here, you can type in my business telephone number, see the business account and can’t pull the order history?” Finally, the manager asked if this was an online order when I said yes, she said “I can do that”. It is vital for the success and retention of customers that team members learn how to ask the right questions and say “I don’t know, let me check on that for you.”

4.            Seek a Fresh Start

In our current economy, with the constant changes going on, all team members, especially leaders need to be caught up to speed. Managers and Leaders are not always up to speed on the processes because they don’t work on them every day. For this reason, it is important to keep lines of communication open so that front-line staff can explain some of the processes and changes helping managers understand the challenges better.

For example, when I worked in database troubleshooting for corporate and higher education, I was asked to review the process and data entry to evaluate if there was a more efficient way to enter the data. I shadowed the front-line staff, observing their process, taking notes, and asking questions. I noticed that each worker did the same task a bit differently. To further understand, I would then do the work and follow the process myself. This gave me a greater understanding of the challenges they encountered with the existing system. By understanding the constraints, what was inside the box it made it easier to seek solutions to make improvements.

5.            Improve your ability to think inside the box.

One of the reasons brainstorming sessions don’t always work is because we don’t ask the right questions. Often in brainstorming sessions, the problem is too broad. Leaders need to put the constraints on the problem. Ask the right questions and the ideas flow rapidly.

To think inside of the box, ask questions like:

  • What are the constraints or challenges with the process right now?
  • What do I need to stop doing, to be best able to meet the challenges of today?
  • What do I need to start doing differently in response to these constraints?
  • How can I use this experience to further my or the company goals and grow?
  • How can I shift my focus to what I can do versus what I can’t do?

Going back to my database troubleshooting challenge in higher education. I noticed the data entry clerks were only entering a few fields of data before they had to navigate off to another screen. The number of screens they navigated too slowed the process down. The question I asked was “why”. Why did they have to go through so many screens for so few fields on each screen? What can be done to improve the process to get more student data entered faster and to minimize the work of the data entry clerks. By asking the right questions I was able to make recommendations to the programmers who then built custom screens that captured all the necessary fields. The time saved by having two screens versus eight improved the process, making the data entry clerk’s job more efficient.  

Thinking inside the box is utilizing the tools you have on hand which leads to growth by reaching outside of the box and bringing ideas in. Remember the box is the constraint, asking the right questions will direct the solutions to problem solve and lead to creativity and innovation.

By, Cheryl Viola, Executive Director


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DeMarco, P. (2016, April 19). Leader time: 7 ways to think more effectively INSIDE the box. Retrieved from

Morgan, A., & Lynch, C. (2015, May 13). Leadership blog. Retrieved from

Rangwala, M. (2017, February 17). A case for thinking inside the box. Retrieved from