Boxes: Part 1

Why do I stand here?

I stand on my desk
to remind myself that we must constantly force ourselves
to look at things differently
The world looks different from up here.
If you don’t believe it, stand up here and try it!
All of you. Take turns.
Dead Poets Society

It’s everywhere – the cliché – the admonition – that we have to start thinking outside the box. The advice is easy. But what does it mean? How do you start? And can it be learned? The Dead Poets John Keating character (played by Robin Williams) suggests one way – change positions and get a new perspective and point of view. Atticus Finch advises Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird to do something similar in order to gain insight and empathy.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–”
“Sir?” “— until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”

– To Kill a Mockingbird

If we want to be innovative in constructive and creative ways then the skills of collaboration and connection are critical. New ideas and new thinking are likely to arise when we approach things from another angle, look at things from another perspective, when we connect with and respect others. It’s about reaching out across boundaries and breaking down the boxes of our stereotypes and our thinking. A third idea for doing just that comes from this story, reported in the Harvard Business Review.

Lee Fleming teaches a course on commercializing science and technology with a combination of students from business, engineering, law, science, and medicine. He is interviewed by Deborah Blagg about what happens in his class, about diversity, and about who learns what and from whom as teams from diverse disciplines focus on tough problems.

The result: Ideas for products from scale-eating bacteria to quantum dot cancer treatments. Key concepts include:

  • Unique approaches and perspectives are crucial when exploring opportunities occurring at the intersection of business, science, and technology.
  • The first step in mixing teams from diverse disciplines is often to break through preconceptions each group has about the other.

HBS Working Knowledge for Business leaders

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