Coloring Outside the Lines

In classrooms all over the world little children are taught the importance of coloring within the lines.  Indeed, they are often called names like “sloppy” or “careless” if they don’t conform.

In some cultures conformity to the norm (tradition) is everything.  Everyone must toe the line and behave appropriately.  Those that deviate from the norm are called deviants.

Isn’t coloring outside the lines similar to thinking outside the box?

How can we expect people to be creative and inovative when we mold them into a pre-existing shape from early childhood on?  How can we expect them to take risks as adults when we punish them for their risks as children and teens?

How can we have teams of creative people when we tend to cluster like-minded people together? 

In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn said that most paradigm shifts came from people outside the profession who said, “How about….” and at first were laughed at.  No reality exists inside the box – you are thinking outside the box they were told.  If and when they were persistent, no ideas, inventions, creations emerged as a result of their not knowing the boundaries of reality for the profession they were challenging.

In my work I often find an unwilingness for people to listen to those from other professions.  Without meaning to sound prejudiced, the most unwilling seem to be the folk in IT.  They often act as though they know more about everything than everyone else.  It’s fun, though to work with these incredibly bright and talented IT people, because once they realize that there are other professions with expertise other than theirs, they “get it.”  When they get it, they learn to listen to others – or as Covey would say, they learn to “listen to understand.”

As a Project Manager you are often challenged by having teams of people responsible for completion of a project who come from different areas of your company – different professional and educational backgronds – and vastly different points of view. 

I believe those differences are more pronounced than the fact that some members of your team come from different countries.  Don’t you?

So, how do you encourage people to color outside the lines?  Building trust, having fun, giving them permission, not allowing ridicule, and creating situations that enable them to think and act differently are the start.  Sometimes it really is asking them to color outside the lines.

You also need to motivate and reward those who are trying new ideas, even whn the process takes more time than you would have ordinarily allowed.  You need to motivate and reward attempts (successive approximations in Psychological jargon) and not get upset at failures or mistakes.  Creativity is a process of trying and failing, trying and failing, modifying and trying and failing, modifying and succeeding.

Good Luck.


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