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  • How shall “in the box” people think “outside the box”?

    Posted by Charles Cameron on June 3rd, 2015 (All posts by )

    [ a gadfly question ]
    .

    We have seen various conversations online in which its is plausibly suggested that YESness leads to upward mobility across an array of silos and disciplines, specifically including the intelligence community and the military — the end result being risk-averse group-think that is pretty much “inside the box” by definition.

    Similarly, we have noted that serious and nuanced issues are frequently debated in the media by those who are known for their general-purpose punditry or seniority, rather than by those with specific knowledge of and insight into the particular issues of concern.

    Question: How shall we get outside the box thinking from inside the box thinkers?

    **

    When I originally posted this on Zenpundit, I almost just posted the title by itself. As one of the commenters there suggested, and I tend to agree, it’s a million dollar question — and one I’d like to see widely cross-posted and debated.

    What say you all?

     

    22 Responses to “How shall “in the box” people think “outside the box”?”

    1. dearieme Says:

      I’ve always thought of pushing the envelope outside the box as being a party game. A box is marked on the carpet, and an envelope place inside it. You kneel, with your hands behind your back, and using only your nose, you push the envelope. Naturally you are blindfolded. And preferably half-cut.

    2. Bill Brandt Says:

      You have to give them unconventional parameters – but most likely you will get in-the-box solutions

    3. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      When we ask ourselves How do I do X?, we think in algorithms; This is how X is done: Step1, Step2. We repeat the steps we’ve learned or seen others use.

      To think outside the box we need to reverse the process. Ask, What do I want to accomplish – what is my goal?, then think how one might accomplish that.

      Brainstorming can be useful. Write down every possible thing that might get the job accomplished no matter how silly or crazy the solution. Afterwards, sort through the solutions and discard only those that can’t actually be made to work by any possible means (magic words, for example). The last step is the hardest. Look at the remaining items and ponder how each of those might be made to work.

      Follow up on ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ thoughts. Lots of great innovations have started with that.

    4. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      I would try a variant of what the intel people used to use, the “B-Team” analysis. A group of people who are thrown into analysing a specific problem [which means a lot of teams]. Two key points for the variations. First, more than half of each team has to be made up of amateurs who have been involved in the field by choice but who are not professionally or personally dependent on the organization. Second, the remainder have to have been actually working in the field at the grunt level with no more than first level supervision experience.

      This bias’ towards PC-heresy, yet there are enough contacts with reality [real reality, not reality as seen from HQ] to generate out of the box ideas.

      Two caveats. First, the BS to hidden gems ratio is going to be very high. Less than what comes out of groupthink meetings, but still really high.

      Second, this is predicated on the concept that there still exists someone higher up in the organization who could recognize a good idea and champion it. And has enough clout to try to force it through. This is the real problem, because the more hidebound the organization, the more that they will tend to act as if their real function is suppressing anything that is not groupthink. Organizations reach the point where they cannot be revitalized or salvaged and are doomed to failure. Interestingly enough, starting very early in the ossification process, success in bringing effective out of the box ideas to reality will bring out more opposition within the organization due to professional jealousy.

      Organizations and institutions have finite lifespans, and eventually all die. I bet everyone here can name some examples.

    5. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      >>the more hidebound the organization, the more that they will tend to act as if their real function is suppressing anything that is not groupthink.

      Agree wholeheartedly with that. That is the safest path. And protection of personal power and income are primary goals in those places.

    6. Jason C Says:

      There actually is some intelligent “outside the box” thinking going on within the US military. I encourage all to take a look at the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum:
      http://defenseentrepreneurs.org/
      DEF is a great org with young officers that trying to fix national security problems by thinking outside the box. Essentially the way to get more “outside the bos” thinkers is to network, network, network and get outside your intellectual comfort zone.

    7. Grurray Says:

      “To think outside the box we need to reverse the process.”

      It sounds like Eric Ries approach to Lean Startup and his Build-Measure-Learn feedbook loop, which is a variation of Boyd’s OODA loop.

      Maybe that’s the idea. Have Subotai’s champion force their ideas rapidly through the scrutiny cycle.

    8. Jonathan Says:

      What the others have said: Frame the goals and parameters carefully, to create the right incentives; use A-Team/B-Team competition.

      (A corollary of framing: Include outliers in any list of examples.)

      Also: Maintain private feedback channels to minimize groupthink. This means you have to be even more careful in using teams. Maintain incentives for individuals to go outside of group hierarchies if they disagree with a consensus.

      These points apply to organizations. The advice for individuals, on how to keep their own thinking “outside the box” when operating independently, would be different.

      The hardest part is probably to get management to go along with an “out of the box” program. Some organizations have been able to do this.

    9. Charles Cameron Says:

      [ Jonathan’s comment slipped past while I was writing this ]

      Dearieme’s game is superb: thinking outside the envelope – with snout!

      Bill Brandt & Michael Hiteshew are both attacking the question from the POV of getting actual inside the box thinkers to change their routines & get outside the box. That’s one approach, but IMO weak compared with getting non-insiders to do the thinking, which Subotai recommends:

      QUOTE: First, more than half of each team has to be made up of amateurs who have been involved in the field by choice but who are not professionally or personally dependent on the organization. Second, the remainder have to have been actually working in the field at the grunt level with no more than first level supervision experience. :END QUOTE

      That’s what I was hoping for, almost word for word!

      Then Subotai continues with an analysis of the heart of the problem. Even with the successful arising of out of the box brilliance, once it’s sorted from the chaff, there’s still the group-think at higher levels to get through:

      QUOTE: Second, this is predicated on the concept that there still exists someone higher up in the organization who could recognize a good idea and champion it. And has enough clout to try to force it through. This is the real problem, because the more hidebound the organization, the more that they will tend to act as if their real function is suppressing anything that is not groupthink. Organizations reach the point where they cannot be revitalized or salvaged and are doomed to failure. Interestingly enough, starting very early in the ossification process, success in bringing effective out of the box ideas to reality will bring out more opposition within the organization due to professional jealousy.:END QUOTE

      Excellent! And Michael H agrees.

      Jason appropriately points to “some intelligent ‘outside the box’ thinking going on within the US military”. That’s the zone where some of my sense of the opposition faced by such thinking comes from, too.

      And Grurray, “Have Subotai’s champion force their ideas rapidly through the scrutiny cycle” – wouldn’t that be nice?! But how long did it take for John Boyd to go from side-lined maverick to role-model advocated by SecDef?

    10. Robert Schwartz Says:

      First question is can we get them to think at all?

    11. Charles Cameron Says:

      ROTFL!

    12. Grurray Says:

      Charles,

      according to Coram’s book Boyd briefed Cheney when he was a young Congressman. The pattern according to Coram seemed to be that Boyd would brief more junior officers and officials then they would remember him and his ideas when they moved up the chain. Maybe this dynamic should be kept in mind for team building the ‘B’ teams.

    13. Grurray Says:

      Typing from my phone, so excuse the errors.
      One more time.
      From Coram’s book

    14. Veryretired Says:

      The belief that we can “force” innovative thinking by putting conventional people in some magical buzz group because they will somehow start to think unconventionally is suspect.

      Innovative people apprehend situations and problems differently than most people, it’s true, but it’s more akin to how an artist perceives light and color compared to those, like me, who have little artistic talent.

      I am unconvinced that this type of aptitude can be created at will.

      The other aspect of innovative thought is the often forgotten, but utterly necessary, concentrated effort by the innovator to develop their idea. The stories of great artistic, scientific, or inventive innovators invariably contains a description of work habits and persistence far out of the scope of the “normal”.

      Newton spent weeks so immersed in his work that those around him feared for his health from lack of sleep and regular meals. Edison went for weeks sleeping in his laboratory, wearing the same filthy clothes, and eating meals on trays, as he performed experiment after experiment. Similar episodes are told about any number of other creative thinkers, up to the modern day stories of computer types who exhaust themselves by writing their new program or testing their new device until they collapse.

      The form of internal fire that drives truly creative minds burns from within their unusual personalities, and I find it hard to believe that this kind of energy and effort can be force-fed from the outside.

    15. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      >>The belief that we can “force” innovative thinking by putting conventional people in some magical buzz group because they will somehow start to think unconventionally is suspect.

      I disagree with that to a point. People often need to give themselves permission to think creatively. That’s one of the purposes of brainstorming, don’t discard, initially, any idea no matter how crazy. It gives your brain permission to think in ways it normally would not by removing all the conventional filters.

    16. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      Beware presenters who purport to teach people to think outside the box by making them play artificial games. This is a clever but not actually intelligent strategy to get them more corporate gigs training teams. Their trick is almost invariably to change the rules mid-game and claim that you stupid people were applying a rule that never existed, even if a simple review of their handouts reveals otherwise. It usually ends with an enjoinder that everyone should listen to each other, because see how stupid you were just five minutes ago. These trainers have no ideas and no creativity, just a half-baked theory or two that doesn’t even rise to the level of being wrong because it is so banal.

      Real thinking outside the box is difficult, and is often resisted by the intelligent more than the dolts. Intelligent people have usually succeeded by jumping to conclusions that are right 90% of the time, taking shortcuts, and eliminating bad answers quickly. To get them to drop their guard and think deliberately and super-objectively you usually have to win their trust by some demonstration that what you are saying works. If your new product works really well, or you are making scads of money, or have the endorsement of top-notch authorities, or have some gift of presentation (think TED talks) the real thinkers will give you a try. Without that, there is simply no incentive for them to do more than listen briefly, then tune you out or knock you down.

    17. Charles Cameron Says:

      My real purpose in asking the question was to suggest that we need people who are already “out of the box” to be sure of having “out of the box” ideas. Veryretired comes close to my ideas when writing:

      “The form of internal fire that drives truly creative minds burns from within their unusual personalities, and I find it hard to believe that this kind of energy and effort can be force-fed from the outside.”

      Such people don’t necessarily make the guest list for major conferences.

      I think John Boyd was such a person, based on the fact that he felt the need to adopt a quasi-monastic existence to protect his thought-process from undue external influence.

      I’m tempted to think we need a monastic order for the cultivation of rich & deep original thinkers, with Hermann Hesse’s Castalia as something of a blueprint.

      Brainstorming and other processes can elicit thoughts that are just outside the box — ie as yet unthought and perhaps useful, but far from earthshaking — from people who mostly think routine thoughts. The Stanford “tube and ping pong ball” exercise is a good example.

      But the future, visionarily, doesn’t depend on those kinds of creativity. It depends on those who live, as Veryretired suggests, in the fire of a *personal imperative*, not in the box.

    18. Veryretired Says:

      MH,

      I think there’s a significant difference between truly creative, innovative thinking and the more mundane effort to find a different approach to a problem because things aren’t working out the way we hoped.

      It’s the difference between developing the concept that all men are created equal, and saying many years later “Maybe we should let some black guys play ball if they’re playing at a major league level anyway.”

      The latter is certainly “out of the box”, but the former is world changing.

      That’s the fire I was talking about earlier.

    19. Ginny Says:

      Isn’t an out of the box thinker sometimes someone who values experience – stopping for a moment and asking why something works that we’ve long taken for granted. Or why something similar doesn’t? Isn’t it empirical evidence that trumps theory? And then a new theory arises that explains? But, of course, I’m out of my league here – humanities people at their best put dots together to come up with generalizations. It may be induction but it’s a lot closer to deduction than scientific inquiry. It struck me when I was young that other liberal arts types tended to remember geometry positively – even if they were generally pretty dismal at math.

    20. Kirk Parker Says:

      Veryretired @ 6:05pm,

      Exactly! I’ve heard this referred to as the “Mad Prophet Theory of Human Development”.

    21. Jonathan Says:

      My real purpose in asking the question was to suggest that we need people who are already “out of the box” to be sure of having “out of the box” ideas.

      The two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s probably true that most big innovations come from a tiny minority of driven visionaries. But it’s also true that even organizations composed of people who aren’t visionaries can become more effective by adopting practices that encourage creative thinking in the right places, and that discourage groupthink and the kinds of bureaucratic self-interest seeking that inhibit independent thought. Successful managers in different kinds of organization understand this.

    22. Charles Cameron Says:

      Agreed, Jonathan. It’s just that when we “empanel experts” to think through some of our toughest, wickedest problems, we so often empanel those those thoughts are on par with what brought about the problematic state in the first place.

      As Jami Miscik once said of CIA, we need our mavericks.