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The first step to thinking outside the box, is stepping outside it

I don’t care how specialized your organization’s mandate is, there will always be more information and knowledge outside your organization than within it.

So here’s a question, why are organizations spending money on the dividing line between the two?

Why are organizations effectively cutting off employees from the resources they need to accomplish their mission through measures like Internet access blocking or refusing to let employees work out of their cages offices.

Is it really fair to ask employees to be innovative and think outside the box with one breath while we deny them the means to actually do so with the next?

This is by far the most detrimental cognitive dissonance of organizational behaviour today. It limits the pool of potential solutions to any given problem, feeds paralysis by analysis, and otherwise undermines employee morale.

Innovation is at the edges

5D by Mark Sebastian

I’ve argued previously that disruptive innovation is about breaking traditional trade-offs and that the people best suited to innovate are nomads and immigrants: people who move seamlessly from one environment to the next, reconciling divergent world views as they go.

If this is indeed the case (and I believe it is) then the logical place to find innovation may in fact be at the organizational limits. Anyone looking to understand the next iteration of mandate, mission, or modus operandi should set up observation posts at the digital and physical organizational boundaries.

The edge of our organizational models will always be the most interesting places. Most of what informs my thinking (and thus my work) comes from outside the organization, and while some may think that is to my detriment, my experience is quite the opposite. The reason I have had any success is because I have demonstrated a clear and consistent ability to approach problems from a different angle and propose novel solutions; I’ve even been referred to by some as their “alternate lens”.

In concrete terms, this means purposely associating and spending time with with people who I might not run into during a typical day at the office:

  • Public servants from other departments, levels of government, and countries
  • Developers and hackers
  • Not for profit organizations
  • Academics and functional experts
  • Journalists, communication firms, and consultancy groups
  • Private (for profit) companies
  • etc

(… who all share my interest in people, public policy and technology.)

And while the web allows me to do all of this digitally and at relatively low cost, I can not understate the need to supplement online activities with real-world interactions whenever possible. This is one of the primary reasons I am willing to expend my own resources (travel costs, vacation, or weekends) to do things like participate in the Open International Hackathon, go to DC to help the Govloop team hand out free lunch to 500 public servants, or join the Hub Ottawa (a new coworking space).

In short, I make a concerted effort to do these (and other related) things because I know that stepping outside the box is the first step to thinking outside it.

What efforts are you making? How are the people around you supporting (or blocking) you?


  1. If you are interested in reading more about the confluence of coworking and the public sector I suggest this piece a by Jamey Coughlin entitled “hackers & bureaucrats a beautiful coworking mash-up?“; it was the inspiration for these (and other) thoughts.
  2. Chelsea Edgell wrote a post called Reimagining the Boardroom Part 2: Cubicles and Sleep-pods that I read after having written this but felt worth pointing to.
  3. I’ve started writing a special series for Apartment 613 (a popular local culture blog here in Ottawa) about the relationship between bureaucratic culture and the city’s culture. You can read my interview with a local burlesque dancer and photographer, both of whom also happen to be public servants.
If I don’t publish anything between now and the new year have a great one and keep on scheming virtuously.

Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca


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Julie Chase

I saw your flow chart. Boy do I hear ya!!! Loud and clear. Yes, Yes, “security reasons”….always For me to order a simple “non-networked” laptop, I need to go through a forest full of paperwork and email no less than 10 people in a group whom I have never met, never will so they can decide when I will be getting it. Having been through this twice, it takes no less than 7 months (if they are pushing it) to have the laptop delivered to my “work” office. If my requisition is on the bottom of the pile it “can” go to a year. The first one, I asked for Windows 7. I was told Windows 7 has NOT been approved and I will be getting Windows XP for my OS. (oh, er, well, ok) I guess it doesn’t matter that the “software” I am procuring (yes, another big maze and hoops to jump through) requires a minimum OS of Windows 7. (yeah, er…ok, but you’re not getting Windows 7). Now when I ordered the second laptop, lo and behold, I could get Windows 7. It had been “approved”. Nick, I bang my head against the wall whenever I am tasked with anything that remotely involves software or hardware “outside” what the “contractor” provides. Now the software vendors will not send us CD’s for the upgrades. Yep, you guessed it, buy online, pay online, download online. NOPE! not allowed. Why? “security reasons”. Ok, I guess it’s back to pen and paper to do our mission, which will slow production output.

Mark Hammer

Some 40 years ago, I had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Carl Sagan, whom I ended up sitting beside just by happenstance. I asked him how it was possible to wrap one’s head around the vastness of the universe, how one could even begin to think about it. He replied that after a while, the universe became a bit like a neighbourhood, and that one started thining in terms of “Go out to Alpha Centauri, hang a left, go 10 light years, and you can’t miss it…”.

The value of having models and analogs, physical and otherwise, is often pivotal in conceptualizing difficult problems. And often counter-intuitive models can shine brighter clearer light than you might imagine. When I first entered government, I worked in employment test development. Much to my surprise, one of the best articles I ever read on test development was not an article on test development at all. It was an article I had read in Byte magazine nearly 2 decades earlier, on the psychology of computer-game design. It was written by Nolen Bushnell, then president of Atari. You can imagine that the state of computer gaming was rather restricted at that point in history: Space Invaders, Centipede, Brick Out, etc. But Bushnell took it all and crystallized it for me in a way that made employment-test design, and dare I say it, university exam design, coherent. He gave me a conceptual framework that let me see things I had not previously seen.

And I hasten to add there was a sizeable gap in time between when I read the article and had the insight. The gestation period for stepping out of the box should not be thought of as necessarily short. If you think that the payoff ought to be immediate, you’re missing the point.

Great ideas, epiphanies, insights, come from focus, but they also come from the most unlikely of places sometimes, and at the most unlikely of times, too. So get out there. Stroll out to the perimeter of your knowledge and peer over the edge. Let your employees look over that edge. Turn “I wonder if there is another way of looking at this?” into a habit of mind that doesn’t have to be struggled with, but that comes easily.