Out-of-box Thinking is a familiar phrase when we talk of problem-solving nowadays. We know of it… that’s all.

Knowing how to drive a car is completely different from actually sitting behind the wheel and engaging the gears for the first time. Just as being aware of out-of-box thinking methods and actually using the methods yourself are two entirely different experiences.

On one hand most people are content to follow the herd. On the other, taking the road less traveled has gained popularity like never before. There are many courageous souls who are willing to go out on a limb to find their fruit. Their choices are better defined. They are less ready to be directed by other people’s choices and are not afraid to be different. They are demanding and they are willing to strive until things are as they want them to be. Second best is no longer good enough. Although the trend is moving towards  finding innovative ways of solving challenges, it is still in it nascent stages.

In India, the lord of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking is Lord Ganesha.  Today is His birthday. I thought I’ll celebrate it by espousing his cause as it were.

There are many popular problem solving methods. There is no doubt that some of the techniques are very effective. Yet most of them remind me of a wooden wheeled bullock-cart .  It can get you places in due course of time. But it is not any fun at ALL. On the contrary it is a blessed pain..! It takes all the thrill  and excitement out of dealing with a challenge and coming out on top. There is no magical possibility of  dizzying elation at unexpectedness of the solution. It gives a solution with a dull plodding grimness. It sets your teeth on edge because the solution you arrive at is so boringly predictable, and is just about adequate to boot.

What if there were no rules to follow and each problem were an adventure…!? Who knows what kind of solutions you’d be able to come up with…! What if instead of advancing two rungs of the ladder and staying stuck there for years you  could just fly off the ladder… up up up and away away away…!? Scary isn’t it…? But oh so much fun…! Why in the name of God do we settle for mediocre when we don’t have to, while outstanding goes begging for buyers…?

The reason probably is that we’ve never thought problems were fun. When challenges come,  our first response is to lament. Our second is to look around for someone to blame. The third is to sit and skulk until the world around is convinced that we are being victimized. We refuse to acknowledge that the challenge happened because some of our  under-used, flabby muscles need toning up. We’d never admit that we need to learn and change- and that it’ll do us a world of good. Instead, we lament, blame, skulk and be the victim. The more time we spend in the vortex of these disempowering negative emotions, the longer it will take us to bounce and be back on track.  They say your physical fitness is not determined by how much weight you can lift, or how long you can run, or how fast. It is determined by how fast your body gets back to normal. The health of our problem-solving muscles is also determined by how fast we can get back on track- with a minimal loss of time and momentum.

Although the challenges we face are very diverse, they have many common characteristics. Whether it is dealing with the loss of a job, surviving in a jungle or finding a faster way of  putting together a presentation- the basics remain the same. A problem- solving process begins when we arrive at the scene of the problem and finishes only when we get the end result we wanted.  There are times we settle for an inadequate solution. Other times we arrive upon a solution which is beyond our wildest imagination. Every challenge can end with a spectacular solution if only we would follow the process as it should be followed.

Sometimes the nature of the challenge dominates the process. For most real life challenges, Col. John Boyd’s  OODA Loop is an accepted flowchart for solving problems. It lists out the steps to take when dealing with a problem. In most cases, it has proved to be totally adequate. Col. Boyd was a defense strategist and devised the cycle for decisions which needed to be taken during combat. But the commercial market place is no less of a war zone and nor indeed is our life. Boyd’s loop has four steps:

Observation: of the play area, the factors governing the ultimate solution, a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis in other words.

Orientation: of the factors towards each other to maximize impact.

Decision: The plan of action, the strategy.

Action: The implementation of the strategy till the result is achieved.

These four steps might go through many cycles of  iteration. At each cycle, the steps maybe fine-tuned before the  final result is obtained.  This model works fine in a untangle a skein of wool situation where the play area is well defined and predictable. But it proves to be inadequate  in situations where known methods have proved inadequate or where the challenge demands the introduction of a new paradigm which was not part of the play area in the beginning.

I tried to imagine a real life situation where Boyd’s Loop would prove to be inadequate. I came up with the example of inventing a light bulb. Please bear with me here for I am going to digress from history entirely, give undue credit to one individual, in short romanticize the whole thing and create a bit of a fictitious story.

Let us assume that you are  Thomas Edison. Also that you (EDISON) were the only person responsible for inventing the incandescent bulb, as is commonly believed. Further I will assume that no other supporting work, by any other individual, in any supporting field, had ever been done. Let me paint a word picture. You are sitting in the flickering light of a candle reading a book. You are getting annoyed at the fitful illumination it provides. Ultimately you lays your  book aside and stare malevolently at the feeble flickering candle. Remember you are an innovator. You are finally annoyed enough to want to improve the illumination.

What would  you do to get better illumination from your wax candle? You could begin with improving the wick, then the wax, then using additives in the wax. With each prototype  you build, you are as dissatisfied as ever. Nothing is working. You are operating in the known, Boyd’s cycle frame of mind. You are thinking of ways of improving the candle. No dice. Your candle improves marginally, but that is all. There cannot be a quantum leap forward. How could there be…? Did you forget you’re still planted on that wooden-wheeled bullock-cart…? You’ve probably already grown roots under your feet. 🙁

The moment of transition comes when you begin to think out-of-the-box. You look at the end result  you want and separate it from the methods you followed. You must remember that end result you want is strong, steady illumination and not strong, steady illumination from a candle. The transition comes the moment you start considering the possibility of something else solving the problem. The instance you stop thinking candles and start thinking hot metals, is the moment of truth. That’s the moment you’ll run out naked in the street yelling eureka…! Once that transition takes place and the paradigm shifts, Boyd’s cycle can take over again.

The magic that makes this transition happen has no name to define it. For want of a better word I will call it innovation which operates out-of-the-box. This box has imagination, genius and passion in it. It has a willing suspension of disbelief. It has a courage that permits you to take risks. It has a fear of abject failure held aloft on a faith you have in your victory.  I believe that is the missing step and will complete the problem-solving process. The new cycle will then be:-Innovation, Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action.

How many of us are ready to stop thinking candles and start thinking hot metals…?  How many of us are aware that we are blessed with the ability to do that..? No, don’t tell me we don’t have the ability, we do. We don’t want to exercise it, we wish it away and abdicate it . It is a choice we make. Maybe we are afraid… or is it just shoddy mental lethargy?

Indian mythology is full of stories in which Lord Ganesha has won the day by finding a solution no one else could have thought of. This is the reason we must pray to Ganesha before any new venture is begun. His importance is greater than that of all other deities since none others can be prayed to until he has been prayed to first. In day to day matters though we remain hide-bound and traditional in our approach. We keep Ganesha in our temples. For the next ten days He will reside in our homes and be a part of our  household. But He will again fail to become a permanent part of our life. After ten days when He goes, He will be have to be content with being relegated to His forgotten corner again.

Will today be the day we will make Him living ideal not merely a mud idol…?

Getting Out of The Box