According to a recent Daily Chart blog in the Economist, mental illness inflicts a heavy toll, especially on the young and is the biggest driver of disability. The study upon which the chart is based suggests that we need to expand mental health services in order to cope with this problem. Many experts would agree with such an assessment and the narrative is quite prevalent today but the idea that many more people than previously thought are mentally ill and that an expansion of mental health services is needed is new to the last two decades. It is an example of a mental model that has been recently constructed by various experts.
Scientists and philosophers are not the only people who create such mental models in an effort to make sense of our reality and experience. All of us do that throughout our lives in order to find meaning in and make sense of our experiences. Such models often arise in reaction to crises big and small. Eventually, however, these models, no matter how successful, become obsolete as reality evolves and the mental model, no longer reflecting that reality, rather than helping us cope with a problem becomes the problem, keeps us from living better lives, making more money and being happy.
How can we break through such reified narratives that no longer work? How can we become more free and creative, to think outside the box and, more importantly, to construct new and better boxes? In their wonderful new book Thinking in New Boxes, Luc De Brabandere and Alan Iny show how to break through dysfunctional concepts and mental models and create new and better systems of thinking.
The reason why mental models, theories, ideas, patterns, systems, rules, assumptions and philosophies fail is because reality is too complex to be boxed into a simple framework of understanding human experience. No matter how brilliant a box we can construct, we can’t construct a perfect one. All ideas we can possibly have are flawed and imperfect. Therefore, choosing mental models, or boxes, such as the one that defines the narrative about the need for more mental health care services, or one that defines who are are as people, nations and corporations is an exercise that always excludes certain aspects of reality from view, forecloses debate and channels resources into a narrowly defined public policy.
A similar process of exclusion happens in the corporate world or anywhere choices must be made about significant issue. Each box we chose defines our reality in a certain way, benefiting some while ignoring the needs of others. If we don’t take care to investigate what we’re missing from our box, our solutions, our mental models, theories and ideas will set us up for unpleasant surprises because the very facts ad issues we dismissed may turn out to be essential aspects of the problem.
Unfortunately, we often accept boxes we’re handed by our betters, especially the experts, because conformity is rewarded. There is another reason why thinking outside a box can be uncomfortable and why we don’t do it often: fear and anxiety or and about the unknown. Boxes can become comfortable opium dens of certainty. Stepping outside such a box can be frightening because the reality inside the box is much more pleasant than that which confronts us in the real world.
This dynamic leads to denial of the fact that our box, no matter how comfortable, is actually harming us by no longer getting us what we want and need in order to life, make money and be happy. This fear of the unknown and the siren call of comfort is why many organizations and civilizations fail. Thus the need for thinking outside the box, approaching problems from new perspectives and for creative thinking in general in business and other areas of life.
Most CEOs and other decision makers understand this to be true, which is why many management gurus and experts have given many thousands hours of training in creative, outside the box thinking with little apparent results. There is a reason for this. According to the authors, thinking outside of the box is a less productive approach than the ability to create new boxes in response to new challenges.
Why would you want to construct a new box just when you’ve escaped one? Because there is no such thing as outside the box thinking. Boxes as mental frames, paradigms, master narratives, theories, assumptions or philosophies are the only way we can understand the complexity of reality. Even if you believe that you’re finally thinking outside the box, all you are actually doing is stepping into a new one. You simply can’t escape boxes. The skill to master is the creation of better boxes.
Changing boxes is a crucial skill for competitive advantage. No matter how superb your business model, how great the innovation that underlies it, the universe changes, consumer preferences evolve — without creating a new box, you will be left by the roadside as throngs rush to new and better boxes created by someone else. Recreating your mental models, then, is an essential life skill for everyone.
The first step, according to Luc De Brabandere and Alan Iny is to increase your awareness of your situation. The worst boxes are those we no longer perceive or the mental models that have become for us synonymous with reality. To see these boxes again, a person must learn to question everything about their existence; question your values, question what you believe is important to you.
It is only by questioning everything, all of your beliefs and assumptions about yourself, your role, or your business enterprise and its value proposition that you begin to see the invisible box or boxes that you live in. Doubt is the first step in being creative.
Take the example of a box about the toll of mental illness: why has mental health become such an issue in the last two decades? Have diagnostic methods become better? Hardly — there is no MRI or blood test that proves the existence of mental illness. What does the box that medicalizes human emotional experience miss? What questions aren’t being asked when we focus on the need for more mental health services? No one is asking, for example, about making societies more fair and just. A more fair and just society would no doubt reduce stress, the cause of many mental disturbances. Indeed, implicit in the construction of the box is the assumption that human beings have no will power to make their world a better place, that the political process is incapable of creating better life outcomes for more people — the world will become better only if we medicalize more of the human behavior.
But behavior is a function of environment. A terrible world exacts a toll that no treatment can hope to mitigate. Nor should mental health be used to cover up the effects of various socioeconomic issues. The box that suggests that we need to treat more people misses this simple fact. Who benefits from framing our understanding of human suffering, unhappiness and other emotional issues as fixable with the help of a pill? Are there links between those who benefit and the mental health industry? The more critical you are toward that which you are supposed to accept on face value, the more you begin to see about the world.
By the process of such questioning, you eventually arrive at the edge of your box and become able to again see the world in new ways. This process isn’t easy. Asking questions is not always welcome, especially if there are special interests that want you to accept a certain box. After years of living in one reality, one’s ability to question and thin also degrades. But probing your ideas for validity, by reevaluating the evidence for your beliefs, you remain free to truly chose your path.
Questioning is not a gimmick, nor indeed are any other of the steps suggested, to try during a retreat. The authors suggest that you adapt a climate of doubt in order to prevent yourself from getting suck in a dysfunctional box. Periodically recess and reevaluate your ideas, process, purpose and goals in life. In this way you will sensitize yourself to the presence of cognitive distortions that the mind creates. The authors discuss a number of these distortions.
In addition to questioning, Thinking in New Boxes presents four other steps to take in your journey out of the box and into a new and better one. These four include: probing the possible, divergence, convergence and reevaluation. Probing the possible is research and exploration. Once you become free of your box, you are ready to explore the world in all of its complex richness and to see it in a new way. The reason why you need to research is simple: when you research, becoming an expert in the area of your interest, you won’t fall into the pie in the sky trap. Soak in as much information about the state of the art in whatever area you wish to compete and you will be able to be truly creative. In order to break the rules, you have to know what they are.
While fully understanding the world is an impossible goal, the attitude of seeking to know is what you’re after. Divergence is the stage at which you create ideas, informed by your research. The process should be guided by a clearly framed question for which you’re attempting to generate answers in the light of your recent exploration of facts and state of the art. Convergence is the step where you analyze your ideas generated in the divergence step. Finally, remember that your new box is going to become obsolete at some point in time. The goal is to create a culture of developing new boxes before the ones you have become obsolete. A creative department is an essential part of any business.
The book’s numerous ideas and exercises are illuminated by anecdotes as well as a running mini case study of a computer game company coping with the need to reinvent. An in depth case study of UNIFE European rail company adds up to an excellent package. While focusing on business creativity, the principles in this book apply anywhere change is needed and will be of interest to anyone seeking to reinvent herself.