The Wilson Quarterly

You’re in a big brainstorming meeting. The CEO is in charge, so you don’t intend to say a word. A few loudmouths are expounding their pet ideas. Think outside the box, the boss says. No idea is too wild. Be bold. You can predict the outcome of the session: ­nothing.

Now, three management specialists have finally seen the light. Think inside the box, say Kevin P. Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, and Renée Dye, all veterans of McKinsey and Company. The trick is con­structing the ­box.

Most professionals are quite capable of thinking effectively within constraints. They are used to it, and automatically explore alternatives. Most people are not very good at unstructured, abstract brain­storming. The key to productive corporate sessions lies in posing smart, concrete ­questions.

Modern psychologists have learned a lot about how people work best in groups, according to Coyne, who left McKinsey to form a partnership in his own name. Most people won’t volunteer a word in gatherings larger than 10, but in groups of four everyone feels obliged to participate. Pushy people can be bundled into the same groups so they cancel each other out. Cheap parlor games work: “We once had the top six executives of a $100 billion company working full tilt because each had bet $20 that his team could come up with the best idea,” the authors ­write.

Good ­questions—­the territory inside the proverbial ­box—­establish boundaries for ideas: Is the company looking for risky big ideas or more modest sure things? How much money can be spent? What staffing is available? Then management can narrow down the resulting ideas and follow up ­immediately.

The ­think-­inside-­the-­box approach may take time to bear fruit, the authors write. But when those who have suffered silently through ­outside-­the-­box sessions open up, a company will get the benefit of more intellectual expertise than in the past, and, just possibly, more thoughtful firepower ­too.

* * *

The Source: “Breakthrough Thinking From Inside the Box” by Kevin P. Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, and Renée Dye, in Harvard Business Review, Dec. ­2007.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/David Goehring

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