Have you worked in a company where the boss declares that the company is ‘innovative’ and where the company “values creative and out-of-the-box thinking”?

You probably have; it is one of the most ubiquitous company slogans. Read the ads on a job-site and most of them are from ‘innovative and fun’ companies looking for someone who ‘thinks outside the box’. If you work for such a company you are also likely to have some difficulty in discerning where and how management achieves, supports and develops such ‘innovative and fun’ culture and how it encourages out-of the-box thinking.

Although the term out-of-the-box-thinking is used to describe creative thinking that is free from the constraints of convention, I associate ‘out-of-the-box’ more with ‘ready-made’ and ‘pre-fab’; in other words with thinking that is delivered like Domino’s pizza or a big-Mac. ‘Innovation’ and ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ are too often used to evoke a superficial emotional response from the target audience, e.g. potential future employees, investors, customers or voters. Today, out-of-the-box thinking looks more like thinking that comes in a box.

But innovation has never been more important than today according to research published in the Global Innovation Barometer, which GE Capital released on January 18, 2012.

The Barometer interviewed 1,000 C-level managers in 12 countries and found that 950 of them regard innovation as the most critical factor in creating a more competitive national economy and in job-creation.

A clear majority (690) value out-of–the-box thinkers (key to innovation) more than pure scientific research.

Yet, if you look around in your business, you probably find that most staff is guided towards conformity rather than inspired to think creatively and to communicate their ideas effectively.

If you are like most of us, then you probably find that working within the margins of conformity is a safer path for a steady career progression. Don’t rock the boat too much, go with the flow, survive and prosper.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review backs you up[1] if you choose to assimilate. According to HBR most managers sort their subordinates into an in-group and an out-group, largely based on like/dislike first impressions. If you are in the out-group, the boss is less likely to notice your accomplishments and more likely to notice your failures, because this justifies and reinforces the original, often unconscious, ‘decision’ to place you in the out-group[2].

People who think differently are often ridiculed or ignored. High-level creative thinkers can only thrive in a culture that is supportive of creativity and few organisations have one. The in-group/out-group categorisation is one of the obstacles in the way of developing a culture that supports innovation.

On the other hand, not all ideas are worth considering, and no organisation wants to spend much time and effort on poor ideas whilst continuously being careful not to tread on people’s sensitive toes. A culture that supports innovation has to be efficient and effective.

Senior management must adopt a framework of higher-order thinking to lift the level of critical and creative thinking and achieve a more innovative culture. Similar to applying a framework of rules and conditions to facilitate the function of accounting, organisations can implement a framework that supports innovation.

A large body of research has identified the components, standards and traits that make up quality thinking, yet most of us do not know of them. Educational curricula are remarkably timid on the subject of critical and creative thinking.

Without knowledge of the key components, standards and traits that form high level, quality thinking we are not in a position to objectively discern quality thinking from poor thinking, in ourselves and others. Yet this ability to discern quality of thought is necessary for a practical and effective culture that supports innovation. Many a charismatic CEO and hard-nosed manager rely on their intuition and experience to make this distinction, but the problem is, as Nobel laureate professor Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, that this is a very unreliable mechanism. According to professor Kahneman, decisions based on intuition and experience are more likely to be stories that we develop to justify an initial like/dislike emotion rather than cognitive conscious decisions[3].

We don’t build a bridge based on what feels good; we check and test designs against the rules of physics and the accumulated experience (our own, but most importantly that of others). Too often however we make important business decisions, such as hiring/firing of staff, allocating budgets and project go/no-go decision, based on what feels good.

Without knowing the components, standards and traits that constitute high-level thinking, we are bound to follow convention and our own biased intuitions. Such a path may appear less risky than a path of innovation but is more likely to lead to diminishing returns if not outright disaster in the longer term (witness how BP did not evaluate its disaster policies until it was too late). Without teams who understand the fundamentals of high-order thinking, the team is most likely to hedge its bets on the side of safety, follow the leader and the wish for innovation remains just that: a wish.

The good news is that management can do something about it: the fundamentals of high-order thinking can be learned and developed into a framework on which a culture of ideas and innovation can be developed .

Once managers share a high-level thinking culture, they express this in their communications and it is picked up by employees. This develops into a virtuous circle where ideas are generated, discussed and evaluated. The outcomes include more ideas and better decision-making; the two core ingredients for successful innovation.

The Australian government has invested heavily in programs for new school halls and school libraries as well as in the provision of laptops for students, ostensibly in line with its clever-nation strategy. The link between a clever nation on the one hand and more school libraries/halls and lap-tops on the other, appears spurious at best. Admittedly these programs increase access to information which is an important component of higher-order innovative thinking, but it is only one of the many and without the other components, just having improved access to information is not going to spur innovation.

Although too early to evaluate strategy outcomes, it nonetheless comes as no surprise that Australia is not yet perceived as an innovative country (see Global Innovation Barometer slide 14: Australia 15th most innovative in a list of 24) and I doubt that the increased access to information for our students will result in catapulting Australia into the top 8 most innovative countries in the years to come. For that we need a change of culture. We need to develop a culture that truly values innovation and out of the box thinking (as originally intended).

Clever countries and clever organisations invest in the development of their most precious asset: the minds of their citizens/employees.

Michel Poelman is the Principal of Thinking4Results, a boutique consultancy that provides workshops and consulting to help clients develop high-order thinking. You can email him at


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