A recent  blog post by Daniel Pink alerted me to a hilarious Wall Street Journal piece by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Adams suggests that one of the best ways to generate good new ideas is to generate a bunch of really bad ones. He gives some pretty silly and/or outrageous examples of ways to tax the rich without calling it a tax – selling them extra votes, for instance.

We’re often urged to “think outside the box” but we can’t do that until we recognize what box we’re in. Here’s an exercise to help:

  • List all of your possible solutions up on a flip chart until you run out of steam.
  • Examine the list and find a characteristic that they ALL HAVE IN COMMON.
  • THAT is the box you’re in!  Now, move to a brainstorm of possible solutions that do NOT share that characteristic. Go ahead and let it get silly if necessary.
  • If nothing on that list seems workable, repeat – what do all of those solutions have in common? Now brainstorm outside of THAT box. Repeat as necessary.
I worked with a community that was struggling with the need to finance extensive building repairs – leaking roofs needed fixing before the rainy season, etc. They did not have enough in the bank and someone suggested a special assessment to fund the repairs. However, several members had recently lost jobs and were already at the financial breaking point, unable to contribute any more money. They felt very stuck.
Looking at all of their suggested solutions, it became clear that their unspoken assumption – their box – was that their values of equality and fairness meant that in any cash call, all members must contribute equally. Once that was stated out loud, they began to discuss what the situation could look like if they let go of that idea.  Each household was given a slip of paper and asked to answer the following question with a dollar amount:
How much of your personal money would you be willing and able to contribute to the repairs, without resentment or repayment, regardless of how much anyone else contributes?
When we collected the slips, the amounts ranged from zero to over a thousand dollars. We totaled up all the amounts, and it was more than enough to fund the needed repairs! Those who felt stress over their financial situation were very moved by the generosity of those who had more and were willing to contribute more, for the benefit of all.
What box are YOU in today?