Please stop asking me to think outside the box

Caution: curmudgeon ahead.

If you’ve been around universities for a while (and believe me, I have), I’m sure you’ve heard someone suggest that it’s time to think outside the box. Often, it will be an upper-level administrator: the notion that it’s good to think outside the box seems to be some kind of virus transmitted by contact with offices containing nice furniture but no journals. (An important note: administrators are not (all) evil. I’ve done my time in administration, and you should too. But I’d be lying if I tried to convince you administration was entirely free of vacuous sloganeering.)

What might it mean to think outside the box? Usually, it seems to mean deciding to do something that nobody else is doing. This is sold as creativity, and if you don’t think very hard, that’s a pretty appealing prospect. Who wouldn’t want their programs to be unique and their initiatives to be trailblazing?

Well, me, for one. One of the universities I’ve been at had a President who was very fond of thinking outside the box.* He was always looking for some way that our university could do something that no other university in the world was doing – a different program, a novel teaching style, a unique internship program, even a distinctive logo. But there are a lot of universities in the world**. If I come up with a truly unique idea for a program that nobody else, anywhere, is offering, which do you think is more likely: that nobody else has ever thought of it?   Or that it isn’t, in fact, a terribly good idea?

Here’s the thing. Almost all the time, the answer is in the box. That’s why the box is there: we found the good ideas, and put the box around them. OK, so thinking outside the box got us Baked Alaska, which is pretty cool even if it’s more of a novelty dessert than something you’d want every night. But thinking outside the box also got us deep-fried Mars Bars, the Edsel, and the Flowbee. Thinking inside the box put humans on the Moon.

Now, any good argument can be taken too far. So don’t confuse my griping with the sentiment (seldom explicit, but usually lurking somewhere in the room) that “we have to do it this way, we’ve always done it this way”. This sentiment always seems to involve a rather local definition of “we” (our department, our university, our subdiscipline). That’s thinking inside a straightjacket, not a box. Being open to the way other people think is really important; but trying to think some way that nobody else has ever thought before is (nearly always) foolish.

When my think-outside-the-box President suggested that we develop novel and distinctive degree programs, I suggested instead that we invest in offering a really, really good but perfectly ordinary Biology degree. The world needs lots of Biology graduates (far more than any single university can produce), so I’m not terribly worried if we’re “duplicating” the perfectly ordinary Biology degrees available elsewhere. Along the same lines, I’m not worried about finding new publication channels to replace the scientific journal, new methods of vetting manuscripts to replace peer review, or new systems to replace the tenure track.*** Our perfectly ordinary universities (and research institutes) staffed with perfectly ordinary scientists doing science and educating students in perfectly ordinary ways have accomplished astonishing things over the last couple of centuries, with no sign I can see that scientific progress is in danger of stalling.

There are a lot of great ideas in the box. Let’s think inside it.

© Stephen Heard ( September 15, 2015

*No, I’m not going to tell you which university or which President. There will have to be beer involved for that.

**23,887 according to this list, and although I wouldn’t want to bet much money on that number being correct, it gives at least an idea of where the ballpark is to be found.

***I’d love to hear why I’m wrong about these in the Replies.


11 thoughts on “Please stop asking me to think outside the box

  1. John Dutton

    If we ever meet I’ll buy you a beer from within the box. My career in concrete quality assurance was based on within the box restraints at every level except from my management.


  2. Peter Apps

    Be grateful that your box has space enough for you to rattle around a bit. If you had to live your life inside one of the tiny little boxes that admin and bean counters build around themselves then you would look at “out of the box” as a vision of heaven.

    And they are only asking you to THINK outside the box, nobody is actually proposing that anything outside the box actually gets done – one of the admin and bean counting box’s walls is built out of solid “those who do nothing cannot do the wrong thing, or spend any money”.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hey, Peter, are you trying to out-curmudgeon me? 🙂

      I would say, though, that we should be careful about painting all administrators with the same brush. (I’m sensitive in part because I’ve been one). There are administrators, both academic (by which I mean Chairs, Deans, VPs) and non-academic (by which I mean HR, Financial, etc.) who really do get universities and what they’re for. I have a post coming up soon about this, actually!


  3. Jeremy Fox

    Some gentle pushback. Or maybe not, since none of what’s below specifically concerns “thinking outside the box”. But they do concern the broader problem of herding cats and getting university faculty to change for the better of the whole university:


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