I Thought I Was Thinking Out of the Box. I Was Not. What About You?

In my previous post, I listed the three main events that drive my thinking. The analytical skill created by one of these events delivered effective solutions again and again, but it also created a serious downside. These experiences lead to the following question: Are the stress and the high pressures we are faced with in today’s world driving us, out-of-the-box thinkers included, to think inside the box?

Up to the turn of the century, it was relatively easy for me to get innovative solutions approved and implemented. With the increasing bureaucracy and complexity, this has become ever more difficult. While I had the support of my peers, approval had to be obtained from ever greater numbers of managers. Any of them could say ‘no’, bringing my initiatives to a full stop. This was where my analytical skill kicked in. It drove me to find more and more information, patterns and facts, and to have answers to any questions that may be asked readily available.

When I then presented a solution, it was accompanied by an overload of information. When somebody asked a question to which I had no answer, I analysed it. Apart from the information overload, the trouble was this: Communication happens quickly; analysis takes time. While the conversation moved on, I was still analysing. This is how I got disconnected from the managers I needed to get on board to move my solutions forward. The harder I tried, the more quickly I became disconnected. I thought the managers were not listening and that the problem was with them. The problem was, however, created by my analytical skill. I was thinking inside the box. This prevented me from seeing that the solution to this communication challenge had to come from me.

The communication problem became painfully clear. This happened when I was in a leadership class. I was asked to simultaneously translate for a German participant who had trouble following the conversation, which was in English. This shouldn’t have been a problem. However, I missed chunks of the conversation and couldn’t translate what I had missed. It turned out multiple tasks were competing in my mind. On the one hand, I was fulfilling the expected task of listening to what was said and translating it into German. There was, however, a third, unnecessary task I was pursuing: I was analysing the discussion and trying to find answers for questions that had not been asked. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate on the expected tasks of listening and translation, the analysing task took over again and again. There was nothing I could do about it.

Well into the class, another participant pointed me to a strange behaviour I was engaging in: sitting on the side-line and not participating in the conversation. Indeed, I was spending all my time analysing. Soon it became clear that this was the reason why I got disconnected in conversations. It was a harsh truth. It seemed every cell in my body was opposed to the consequence. This emotional experience opened the door to influencing the analytical task.

Near the end of the class, we went through an exercise in which we were expected to drop something. What I dropped was standing at the side-line. This way, I was able to keep my analytical skill intact but assign it a low priority during conversation. During a subsequent class, I had to translate again. This time, I was able to translate with ease and without missing chunks of the conversation.

Still, this was insufficient to re-connect me with the managers. After another inside-the-box thought process was identified and fixed, and an additional technique applied, I was able to reconnect with people with whom I had been unable to connect in recent years, managers included. The amazing thing was that this change happened within the space of 24 hours.

Does it work all the time? By its nature, communication is a complex challenge. What works in one situation may not work in another situation. Learning more communication skills, setbacks and on-going practice are all part of the game. All I can say is this: This journey already made a huge difference for me.

When combined with out-of-the box thinkers struggling to get their innovations accepted, these experiences lead to the following question:

Are the stress and the high pressures we are faced with in today’s world driving us, out-of-the box thinkers included, to think inside the box?

What do you think?

About Eugen Oetringer

Driven to find Simple Solutions to Complex Challenges. Especially interested when earlier improvement attempts have delivered insufficient results.
This entry was posted in Avoiding Traps, Communication Skills, Conflict Resolution, Constructive Dialogue, Conversation, Effective Solutions, Leadership, Leadership Coaching, Leading, Lessons Learned, Management, New Generation Leadership Training, Root Cause Analysis and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to I Thought I Was Thinking Out of the Box. I Was Not. What About You?

  1. Sig Rinde says:

    Eugen, good point about the communication going “too fast”… but I wonder…

    Seems like what you describe is a classic “reaction” pattern, and it would be the managers who are in control, nicely inside the box usually, so not much hope for the follower (you in the example) to get outside the box.

    What about getting “inside the loop” and shifting reaction from you to the manager? Thus allowing you to move outside the box at your own pace while the new follower follows outside the box (which can be useful for all parties).

    Again the good old “why?” comes to rescue – challenge the assumptions – and you’ve broken the path I’d say, now you’re in leader position, free to go outside the box.



    • Hi Sig,

      Thank you for your feedback. So far the trouble was this: What I address these days are root causes of failure with far-reaching impact. That’s, for example, a communication gap between central organisations and the field. We managed to get such a solution in production for 30,000 people and it delivered great results (published via a white paper and book). With the complexities involved in today’s environments, however, I am usually required to use only a part of this solution. That means the root cause cannot be fixed.

      You are right. The challenge is to start from “inside the loop”. It took quite some time to find ways to start from the inside, to make it interesting to extend horizons and to go beyond the box. This became the foundation for Leading in a Complex Environment.



    • Brandi says:

      Wow! Great thgnkini! JK


  2. Dr. Michele Meyer says:

    Eugen, something about your post rang true with me, since I too am an “idea’ person.
    However I had the exact thought as Sid when I read this post, that its better to be thinking in terms of being “in the loop” rather than outside the box. Today’s world of work is all about collaboration and teamwork, and you need people on your team to relate to and accept your ideas. Then those on your team that have the best connections ( networking) can help move ideas forward and through the bureaucracy. As leaders, we also have to accept the fact that an awesome idea can flourish into another form or even something better when others have their input, so being in the loop acknowledges the importance of other people and teamwork. Thinking outside the box aligns with the last century’s paradigm of “standing apart from others” and being in the loop aligns with working together and supporting each other to make the whole greater than the sum of it’s parts.


    • Dear Michele,

      Thank you for bringing a perspective into the discussion I had not seen this way yet: ‘Thinking outside the box aligns with the last century’s paradigm of “standing apart from others”!

      Further, please see my reply to Sig.



  3. Marieka Easterley says:

    Eugen, the emphasis on critical analysis as the best way to behave is an issue in education that many people still face. Did you notice that you have offered good evidence of your analysing your thinking and those possible self-limiting behaviours that seem to kick in under pressure. Perhaps a possible way forward is to stop worrying and attempting to analyse whether you are thinking in or outside the box in any one session or not. I have found that a useful way forward is to imagine the experience of the old self-limiting behaviours being forced to subside and you coming up with the best-matching ideas or insights to your pressing issue or needs – just at the very best time in such an idea-storming or multi-tasking session, for instance.
    By learning to work with our poorly recognised human capacity for intuiting an exact matching idea to desires or ambitions (just like a spide in spinning its web), you could let go of the need to then analyse the results as they surface – just accept what comes forth as the most innovative solution that you could invent at the time, and keep on imagining success in the continued subsistance of those old self-defeating learnt traits.


    • Dear Marieka,

      Thank you for feedback. Indeed, letting go of the need to analyse is one of the techniques that I apply today. What worries me is that, driven by the stress and high pressures of today’s world, many others may be in a similar situation as the one I was in: I was beyond a tipping point where it was impossible for me to let go of certain ways of thinking, no matter how hard I tried (in this case the analysing task and another mental blockade).

      You could have said what you wrote to me and I wouldn’t have been able to apply it. The trick that made all the difference was that I was guided to find the problem myself. This opened the door to break though what had become a “hardcoded wiring” in my mind.

      Best regards,


  4. Pingback: A Personality Shift | unboundpath

  5. Reblogged this on KnowledgEvolution and commented:
    I Thought I Was Thinking Out of the Box. I Was Not. What About You?
    – by Eugen Oetringer
    When combined with out-of-the box thinkers struggling to get their innovations accepted, these experiences lead to the following question:

    Are the stress and the high pressures we are faced with in today’s world driving us, out-of-the box thinkers included, to think inside the box?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s