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11 Ways to Think Outside the Box

11 Ways to Think Outside the Box

Thinking outside the box is more than just a business cliché. It means approaching problems in new, innovative ways; conceptualizing problems differently; and understanding your position in relation to any particular situation in a way you’d never thought of before. Ironically, its a cliché that means to think of clichéd situations in ways that aren’t clichéd.

We’re told to “think outside the box” all the time, but how exactly do we do that? How do we develop the ability to confront problems in ways other than the ways we normally confront problems? How do we cultivate the ability to look at things differently from the way we typically look at things?

Thinking outside the box starts well before we’re “boxed in” – that is, well before we confront a unique situation and start forcing it into a familiar “box” that we already know how to deal with. Or at least think we know how to deal with.

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Here are 11 ways to beef up your out-of-the-box thinking skills. Make an effort to push your thinking up to and beyond its limit every now and again – the talents you develop may come in handy the next time you face a situation that “everybody knows” how to solve.

1. Study another industry.

I’ve learned as much about teaching from learning about marketing as I have from studying pedagogy – maybe more. Go to the library and pick up a trade magazine in an industry other than your own, or grab a few books from the library, and learn about how things are done in other industries. You might find that many of the problems people in other industries face are similar to the problems in your own, but that they’ve developed really quite different ways of dealing with them. Or you might well find new linkages between your own industry and the new one, linkages that might well be the basis of innovative partnerships in the future.

2. Learn about another religion.

Religions are the way that humans organize and understand their relationships not only with the supernatural or divine but with each other. Learning about how such relations are structured can teach you a lot about how people relate to each other and the world around them. Starting to see the reason in another religion can also help you develop mental flexibility – when you really look at all the different ways people comprehend the same mysteries, and the fact that they generally manage to survive regardless of what they believe, you start to see the limitations of whatever dogma or doxy you follow, a revelation that will transfer quite a bit into the non-religious parts of your life.

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3. Take a class.

Learning a new topic will not only teach you a new set of facts and figures, it will teach you a new way of looking at and making sense of aspects of your everyday life or of the society or natural world you live in. This in turn will help expand both how you look at problems and the breadth of possible solutions you can come up with.

4. Read a novel in an unfamiliar genre.

Reading is one of the great mental stimulators in our society, but it’s easy to get into a rut. Try reading something you’d never have touched otherwise – if you read literary fiction, try a mystery or science fiction novel; if you read a lot of hard-boiled detective novels, try a romance; and so on. Pay attention not only to the story but to the particular problems the author has to deal with. For instance, how does the fantasy author bypass your normal skepticism about magic and pull you into their story? Try to connect those problems to problems you face in your own field. For example, how might your marketing team overcome your audiences normal reticence about a new “miracle” product?

5. Write a poem.

While most problem-solving leans heavily on our brain’s logical centers, poetry neatly bridges our more rational left-brain though processes and our more creative right-brain processes. Though it may feel foolish (and getting comfortable with feeling foolish might be another way to think outside the box), try writing a poem about the problem you’re working on. Your poem doesn’t necessarily have to propose a solution – the idea is to shift your thinking away from your brain’s logic centers and into a more creative part of the brain, where it can be mulled over in a non-rational way. Remember, nobody has to ever see your poem…

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6. Draw a picture.

Drawing a picture is even more right-brained, and can help break your logical left-brain’s hold on a problem the same way a poem can. Also, visualizing a problem engages other modes of thinking that we don’t normally use, bringing you another creative boost.

7. Turn it upside down.

Turning something upside-down, whether physically by flipping a piece of paper around or metaphorically by re-imagining it can help you see patterns that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. The brain has a bunch of pattern-making habits that often obscure other, more subtle patterns at work; changing the orientation of things can hide the more obvious patterns and make other patterns emerge. For example, you might ask what a problem would look like if the least important outcome were the most important, and how you’d then try to solve it.

8. Work backwards.

Just like turning a thing upside down, working backwards breaks the brain’s normal conception of causality. This is the key to backwards planning, for example, where you start with a goal and think back through the steps needed to reach it until you get to where you are right now.

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9. Ask a child for advice.

I don’t buy into the notion that children are inherently ore creative before society “ruins” them, but I do know that children think and speak with a n ignorance of convention that is often helpful. Ask a child how they might tackle a problem, or if you don’t have a child around think about how you might reformulate a problem so that a child could understand it if one was available. Don’t run out and build a boat made out of cookies because a child told you to, though – the idea isn’t to do what the child says, necessarily, but to jog your own thinking into a more unconventional path.

10. Invite randomness.

If you’ve ever seen video of Jackson Pollock painting, you have seen a masterful painter consciously inviting randomness into his work. Pollock exercises a great deal of control over his brushes and paddles, in the service of capturing the stray drips and splashes of paint that make up his work. Embracing mistakes and incorporating them into your projects, developing strategies that allow for random input, working amid chaotic juxtapositions of sound and form – all of these can help to move beyond everyday patterns of thinking into the sublime.

11. Take a shower.

There’s some kind of weird psychic link between showering and creativity. Who knows why? Maybe it’s because your mind is on other things, maybe it’s because you’re naked, maybe it’s the warm water relaxing you – it’s a mystery. But a lot of people swear by it. So maybe when the status quo response to some circumstance just isn’t working, try taking a shower and see if something remarkable doesn’t occur to you!

Do you have strategies for thinking differently? Share your tips with us in the comments.

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Last Updated on June 12, 2019

Top 10 Ways to Lead More Effectively with Humor

Top 10 Ways to Lead More Effectively with Humor

Humor and laughter provide so many rewards. Studies have shown 20 seconds of laughter yield the same benefits as 3 minutes of hard rowing. A Robert Half International study reported 84% of executives believe a worker with a good sense of humor does a better job. Incorporating humor more effectively in the workplace allows you to defuse difficult situations, reduce stress, create attention for new ideas, build rapport, and be a more approachable and memorable leader.

With those benefits, it behooves you to hone your workplace comedic skills. So in the tradition of David Letterman, here are the top 10 ways to more effectively lead with humor!

#10. Look for Joy in Life

An important step is continually looking for joy throughout your life. This happens in a variety of ways:

  • Focus less on yourself and more on helping others. Need help? Read “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” the classic by Dale Carnegie.
  • Laugh more – kids reportedly laugh 400 times per day vs. 15 times for adults. Aim for laughing 40 times daily to be at least 10% of your former self!
  • Regularly read humorous comic strips and look for quips and funny comments in your reading.
  • Even in challenging situations, hunt for something funny or humorous you can take away.

#9. Learn What Makes You Laugh

If you’re trying to laugh 40 times daily, it’s important to know what makes you laugh and have ready access to laugh-provokers. Figure out 107 things which make you laugh. Unrealistic? Hardly! Why 107? Because 107 is funnier than 100! Here’s a recipe for listing what makes you laugh by simply identifying:

  • 13 Movies
  • 11 TV Shows
  • 5 Words or Phrases
  • 19 Personal Stories
  • 5 Cartoons
  • 7 Audio or Video Pieces
  • 11 Comedians
  • 7 TV Personalities
  • 7 Funny Photos
  • 7 People You Know
  • 15 of Anything Else
  • TOTAL = 107 Funny Things

Collect & save these humor starters in a “Smile File” when you quickly need a laugh or comedic inspiration.

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#8. Use Your Own Comedic Material

Personal experiences are the most genuine humor sources for effective leadership. Look for humor in situations from your own life:

  • Funny things you have said or others have said to you
  • Pratfalls, be they mental, interpersonal, & physical
  • Embarrassing moments or unexpected happenings
  • Times of change or learning
  • Difficult life events (yes, even these can be humor sources)

When turning personal situations into comedic material, remember lessons learned from a childhood humor staple: Knock-Knock Jokes. These simple jokes work because the knock-knock structure highlights familiar situations, uses only essential words and phrases, and clearly signals a laughing opportunity. They also demonstrate how humor springs from surprise. The laughs come from not knowing who or what exactly is behind the door based on the initial response to “Who’s there?”

#7. Adapt Somebody Else’s Material

Beyond your own experiences, there’s a tradition of “borrowing & adapting” (I didn’t say stealing) funny stuff from others. That’s why old-time comedian Milton Berle was called the “Thief of Bad Gags.”

Part of borrowing successfully is using easily accessible humor sources in ways many don’t consider. Beyond simply Googling “funny” in front of quotes, one-liners, definitions, pictures, or videos, here are two other common sources you can adapt:

  • Cartoons – You can use cartoons in various ways by showing one in a presentation, telling the cartoon’s story (potentially making yourself a character) without any images, or using its punch line as a starting point for new humor.
  • Comedians – Mainstream comedians’ jokes or catch phrases are another source to modify and adapt to your personality or work situation. Watch lots of comedians and learn how professionals do it so well.

#6. Understand Your Audience

Using humor in a leadership position requires understanding boundaries on its proper use. It all starts with really understanding your audience by:

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  • Paying attention to top management’s attitudes toward humor.
  • Knowing the audience’s composition – this directly affects which humor types are appropriate.
  • Loving your audience as much or more than you poke fun at them.
  • Inviting others into humor since you can’t assume they share your same humor sensibilities.

In case you’re contemplating using ad lib humor, completely knowing your audience is even more vital. Ad-libs have the potential for going horribly wrong because audience sensibilities have been misjudged. It’s very beneficial to actually plan and rehearse ad libs. It may sound odd, but identify common work situations you encounter and think through what usually goes wrong or provides a source for potential humor. Work out some “safe” funny comebacks to use as “planned” ad libs.

#5. Know the Rules and Boundaries

There are blatant humor no-no’s in the workplace which are quite acceptable for an onstage comedian. At work, avoid harmful practical jokes or pranks, heavily sarcastic comments, and humor rooted in religious, sexual, ethnic, or racial themes. Think you know your work setting well enough to tread on this dangerous ground? Here’s some advice: DON’T. The way questionable humor will be perceived by a workplace audience is too much of an unknown to take big risks when your career is at stake.

Use this checkpoint to actually see if your intended workplace humor is SAFE. To pass the SAFE test, all of these statements need to be true regarding your joke, comment, or image:

  • I can Say/Show this to my mother.
  • It wouldn’t Anger me if I were the butt of the joke.
  • This wouldn’t trigger an FCC violation
  • Everyone in the audience will be able to get it.

With even a hint of one false answer, dramatically modify your idea or better yet, abandon it and start over.

#4. Get over Yourself

Effective leaders don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re comfortable laughing at themselves and letting others be funny as well. Leaders should become adept at appropriately using self-deprecating humor, i.e., self-directed humor downplaying your own talents, stature, or accomplishments

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You don’t want to use self-deprecating humor on simply any topic, however. It’s most effectively & appropriately used in:

  • Situations where you’re comfortable & self-confident
  • Areas where your credibility & competence are clearly established
  • Ways that fit your known personality & sensibilities

Remember – when trying to borrow someone else’s self-deprecating humor, you need to share that person’s perspective & situation. If not, it’s simply deprecating! I once heard a decidedly non-technical Marketing VP call out “data geeks” in the audience. While that’s what they called themselves, she wasn’t a part of their group, and her comment, intended to build affiliation, fell completely flat.

#3. Need Humor Ideas? Just Look Around

The workplace is filled with situations lending themselves to comedy. Humor springs from exaggeration, wordplay, misunderstandings, ambiguity, contradictions, paradoxes, pain, and inconsistencies. If you work in any type of business or organizational setting, there are plenty of these situations to go around!

As a leader, it’s your role to use the proper opptunities to encourage and employ humor successfully by ensuring that:

  • Your humor makes others feel good about themselves.
  • Hurtful fun isn’t made of those less tenured than you in the organization.
  • You don’t use humor when agitated since it can lead to apparent meanness.

#2. Surround Yourself with Joy

If you’re looking for more joy and levity in leadership, surround yourself with joyful people. These are people who are funny, easily spur laughter, and routinely cheer people up through their presence.

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Cultivate relationships with these types of people. Spend time with them, learn from their successful uses of humor, and emulate elements of their approaches that work for you.

Beyond basking in the joy these people create, select 3 or 4 of them to be an informal comedy team. As your comedy team, solicit their opinions to help you generate and refine humor ideas. They can also provide perspectives on potentially questionable humor material that makes it through the SAFE test, but still feels like it might not be right for a workplace audience.

#1. Dive into the Fun

Ultimately, the most important part of successfully using humor as a leader is actually sharing it in the workplace. Here are a few final tips to keep in mind:

  • Practice your humor in appropriate, low-risk settings to find out what works before trying it out with a bigger audience.
  • Signal a laughing opportunity through your words, actions, and tone. It’s also a good practice to give people “permission” to laugh in the workplace.
  • Finally, be earnest in using humor; don’t focus on laughs so much as lightening and adding fun into work settings.

Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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