“In-the-box” thinking

Posted by on May 1, 2012 in creativity | No Comments

Pre-Ramble:  Creative wisdom touts the benefits of thinking “outside-the-box” (don’t get me started on the totally UN-creative over-use of this phrase … ) and I am usually onboard with the general meaning here.  This week, however, I have come to appreciate the vastly under-rated and hugely valuable thinking going on “inside-the-box.”

For the past several weeks, we have been packing up all of our belongings and moving them to a house just a mile or so away from the one we’ve lived in for 15 years.  We’re talking about a pretty significant accumulation of furnishings, clothing and random other stuff (for example, in spite of the fact that we can never find them when we need them, we have 14 pairs of those orange Fiskars scissors).

While wrapping and placing every item in its appointed box, I couldn’t help but think of the importance of knowing strategically not only what was in each box, but also where the boxes themselves would be unloaded.  A box full of whatever, taken to wherever would be a nightmare to integrate into the new place.

What was “in-the-box” needed to be considered as strategically as what was “outside-of -the-box” … Turns out, the same is true in creative thought circles …

Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of “How to Be Excellent at Anything,” wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review titled, “How to Think Creatively.”  In it, he articulates what he considers a predictable process for creative thought …

Over the past hundred years, researchers have reached a surprising degree of consensus about the predictable stages of creative thinking. The stages move back and forth between right and left hemisphere dominance:

1. Saturation: Once the problem or creative challenge has been defined, the next stage of creativity is a left hemisphere activity that paradoxically requires absorbing one’s self in what’s already known. Any creative breakthrough inevitably rests on the shoulders of all that came before it.

2. Incubation: The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can’t seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions.

3. Illumination: Ah-ha moments — spontaneous, intuitive, unbidden — characterize the third stage of creativity. Where are you when you get your best ideas? I’m guessing it’s not when you’re sitting at your desk, or consciously trying to think creatively. Rather it’s when you’ve given your left hemisphere a rest, and you’re doing something else, whether it’s exercising, taking a shower, driving or even sleeping.

4. Verification: In the final stage of creativity, the left hemisphere reasserts its dominance. This stage is about challenging and testing the creative breakthrough you’ve had. Scientists do this in a laboratory. Painters do it on a canvas. Writers do it by translating a vision into words.

According to Schwartz’ model then, we have an “in-the-box” activity (Saturation), … followed by an “out-of-the-box” activity (Incubation), … followed by another “out-of-the-box” activity (Illumination), … then wrapped up by a final “in-the-box” activity (Verification) … The relationship between the realms of “in-the-box” (left brain) and “out-of-the-box” (right brain) are symbiotic.

The Take-Away:  Whether you’re packing precious dishes or high-potential ideas, attending to what is happening “inside-the-box” is as crucial to a successful outcome as working/thinking “outside-the-box.”

Post-Note:  If anyone can tell me which box my golf shoes are in, I’d be very grateful.

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