How shall “in the box” people think “outside the box”?

[ by Charles Cameron — a gadfly question ]

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We have seen various conversations online in which its is plausibly suggested that YESness leads to upward mobility across an array of silos and disciplines, specifically including the intelligence community and the military — the end result being risk-averse group-think that is pretty much “inside the box” by definition.

Similarly, we have noted that serious and nuanced issues are frequently debated in the media by those who are known for their general-purpose punditry or seniority, rather than by those with specific knowledge of and insight into the particular issues of concern.

Question: How shall we get outside the box thinking from inside the box thinkers?

14 comments on this post.
  1. carl:

    It is not possible. You can only hope that when a critical situation comes along the drones are discredited soon enough that they are replaced by good people before fatal damage is done. Even then it is a long shot because the one thing they are good at is rigging the system to protect their positions.

  2. zen:

    Largely you can’t, not without well placed, well-timed, organizational trauma at least.
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    And by that, I mean the protection of “mavericks” who can stimulate discussion that threatens cherished received wisdom, iron rice bowls and sacred cows. It takes wise leadership to consistently prevent angry, middle-level management/staff officers/deputy assistant secretaries/assistant chiefs of staff from being the institutional and ideological commissars that bureaucracies naturally grow as the organizational immune system to kill outside ideas and enforce conformity. People don’t like being challenged, at least not most and there is no shortage of otherwise intelligent people who prefer status, turf protection,self-congratulation and routine to active thought and problem-solving.

  3. Cristina C. Giancchini:

    That’s the million dollar question now, isn’t it? Of course you are quite right when you suggest that things can’t exactly change when all the ‘pundits’ repeat the same ideas, the same concepts, in practically the same wording. They respond to certain interests and therefore we have to wonder if there will ever be space for the knowledgeable and dynamic people, who could actually contribute to change. Do we need an intel résistance?

  4. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Zen:
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    “Iron rice bowls” sound as though they might be Chinese, “sacred cows” almost certainly Indian — and “received wisdom”, American?
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    Do you have something for the sectarian irregulars?

  5. Charles Cameron:

    Hello again, Cristina:
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    I had a funny feeling when I wrote this post. I almost just posted the title, because like you, I think it’s a million dollar question.
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    If this was Twitter, I’d say “please RT” — I think it’s a question that deserves to be spread around, asked, asked, and asked again.

  6. Daniel F. Bassill:

    Hi Charles,
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    Thanks for asking me to take a look at this. It’s a challenge I’ve been poking at for a long time. I’ve written over 1000 articles on my blog since 2005 and many of them focus on getting people to innovate new solutions to complex problems.
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    The problem I’ve focused on is building support systems that help inner city kids move more successfully from birth in poverty to life with jobs out of poverty, and how to make such support systems available to kids in all high poverty neighborhoods of a big city like Chicago, not just a few good programs in a few places.
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    One article that I encourage you to look at is this one that I wrote after the Avengers movie came out in 2012.
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    I wrote another article last weekend that relates to this question, following the Global Cities summit in Chicago. Toward the end of this article I mention a book by Harvard’s Robert Putnam and a blog article by John Gomperts, President of the America’s Promise movement.
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    In talking about solving the problem of poverty, Gomperts says, “The most important thing we could do to help the poor is to convince the rich that this problem is their problem.”
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    The timing of your request coincides with another friend from the Cleveland area posting an article yesterday showing how I grew to have the passion and commitment I now have.
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    I show that I did not start out wanting to think outside the box and challenge others to do the same. I grew these habits over the first 20 years of trying to find solutions to an unsolvable problem. I’ve expanded my thinking dramatically as I connected to others beyond Chicago in the past 20 years.
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    Getting rich people to think of poor kids as their own kids, and provide a level of support to poor kids that might even be 25-30% of what they give their own kids, is a “mission impossible”, yet if no one tries to make this happen, and solve the problem of unequal opportunity, it grows and that could prove costly to our democracy in the future.
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    So what’s the solution? Find ways to get people engaged with social/environmental issues from when they are young, and keep them engaged for a lifetime. Teach them to spend time reading, reflecting, engaging with others on web forums like Social Edge, and blogs like this, and some will begin to change from being someone dragged to a meeting to someone dragging others to the meeting. Teach them to put their solutions in writing and use maps and visualizations to communicate their ideas. Teach them to be advertisers and network builders, who every day share ideas and invite others to connect.
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    A VP of a finance company once said to me “You (non profit leaders) have to be more innovative because you don’t have the resources we (big business) have to solve problems.”
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    Get people deeply involved in cause they care about, keep them involved, show them how others are solving the problem, and encourage them to innovate and share their own solutions, using all the free social media tools that have emerged and will keep growing.
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    20 year ago, before the Internet, this was more difficult because you were alone and could find few people to support out of the box thinking. Now you can connect with people all over the world who may share and support your ideas. More and more tools are available to share your ideas. Much more is possible than ever before. Nothing will be easy.

  7. Charles Cameron:

    Thanks, Daniel, as always.

  8. Charles Cameron:

    My friend Bryan Alexander of InfoCult came up with a suitably ambiguous and novel answer by invoking the box itself, in one of its many configurations — he pointed me to Clive Barker, in whose The Scarlet Gospels I found the following:

    Harry stood up and leaned on the bookshelves to take a better look at the glittering device. He’d never laid eyes on one until now. Named after their French designer, the devices were known simply as Lemarchand’s Boxes. In more knowing circles, however, they were also branded with a more truthful name: Lament Configurations. They existed in unknown numbers all around the world. Some, like this one, were in hiding, but many were out in the tide of human affairs and appetites, where they made terrible mischief. To solve the puzzle box was to open a door to Hell, or so the stories said. The fact that most of the people who solved the puzzles were innocents who’d chanced upon them was apparently a matter of indifference to Hell and its infernal agents. A soul, it would seem, A soul, it would seem, was a soul.
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    Even though he knew all too well the danger a Lament Configuration presented, Harry could not quite persuade himself to put it back behind the specimen jars. Harry let the twitching pleasure in his fingertips slide over the box once more.

    Since we’re allegedly and perhaps even verifiably moving from a literal to a visual culture, though, the following video may be of assistance:

  9. carl:

    It seems to me that both Zen and Daniel are saying the solution is for good leaders to grab ‘holt of the organization give it a good shake and force it to change. That will work if the leader has the power but it seems to me that defending itself against such people is what these drone organizations do best. It is their prime purpose and what they are actually good at. So if the solution is for a good leader to shake the place up but the place is constructed so as to make it almost impossible for a good leader to come to fore, you are right back where you started. The organization has to be destroyed or nearly destroyed before something new can grow. I am terrified that this is true with the US military and the country will have to pay the price.

  10. Ed Webb:

    Maybe it can only happen if a core value of the institution is relentless questioning/disruption (not in the Silicon Valley sense)/self-criticism. I used to work in government foreign policy machinery & felt my brain shrinking daily from the standard operating procedure-ness of it all. I survived the Iron Cage. Now I teach in a liberal arts institution where we surely have our share of bureaucratic hurdles, but the core mission is not “serve the machine,” but “question everything.” My brain is healthier.

  11. david ronfeldt:

    a good question, charles. also a kind of pandora’s-box question: i’ve long wondered about “out of the box” exhortations. i noticed the phrase when it showed up where i used to work; it was late 1990s or early 2000s, as i recall, brought in by new staff who’d come from the clinton administration. what little exposure and experience i’ve had has led me to feel that those who most urge becoming “out of the box” (1) really want back in the washington box before long, and (2) are more concerned about near-term than long-term thinking.

  12. david ronfeldt:

    while catching up on some blog feeds, i came across a post by robert kadar, at the blog of the evolution institute, writing about “what business cycles can teach us about evolution”. he says he was asked to “think outside the box”. as a result he writes about “a self-reinforcing cycle of competitive advantage. I call this the Escher Cycle because, like Escher’s staircase, it goes up and up forever.” the steps in that cycle are as follows: understand, design, implement, operate. that looks to me much like boyd’s OODA loop. anybody here seen comparisons of the escher cycle and ooda loop?

  13. zen:

    Hi David
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    I have never heard of the Escher Cycle, though I have long admired M.C. Escher’s artwork. Here’s Escher’s staircase, or at least one of them:
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    http://i.huffpost.com/gen/647933/thumbs/s-03929_PO_ESCHER_07-large640.jpg?4
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    I think the difference between Boyd’s Loop and Escher’s is that Boyd was postulating a dynamic model for approximating reality while Escher’s Loop intentionally and jarringly creates a perception that breaks the Newtonian rules of reality
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    Escher

  14. david ronfeldt:

    wonderful, zen.
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    i erred: the post i referred to is by finn jackson, not robert kadar. if you want to take a look, it’s at:
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    https://evolution-institute.org/article/what-business-cycles-can-teach-us-about-evolution/
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    he proposes that the escher cycle “is a repeating, nested, fractal pattern, inherently chaotic and yet at the same time deeply directional”. he thinks it amounts to a new paradigm for understanding biological, business, and social evolution. i left a comment asking whether he knows about the ooda loop.
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    his escher cycle looks quite out of the box for his area of expertise. but if is indeed parallels the ooda loop, then what’s out of the box in one domain may not seem so in another.