Thinking Outside the Box vs Productivity

To truly think outside the box, you need to free your mind from productivity and notice things

I’ll pick up where I left off, with a (really) brief history of thinking outside the box.

As I was saying while referencing our paleolithic cousins,

 thinking inside the box has happened forever and is good; thinking outside the box has also happened forever and is also good.

Which is to say, both approaches are evolutionarily valid; they’ve contributed to our species’ survival. But as a consultant or entrepreneur, you may be more concerned with outside-box thinking – a mini-framework:

  1. Notice patterns others don’t
  2. Learning & doing stuff lots of different ways, with the goal of (a)
  3. Learning & doing the same way over and over, also with the goal of  (a)

I think (c) is how we discovered the Olduvai Handaxe 1.5 million years ago in what is now Tanzania. You can see one of the earliest examples of it at the British Museum. I once stopped there after a day’s work at my Clerkenwell co-work. Look what I found:

[enable images to see the handaxe]

This happened because someone used one stone to chip away at another stone, over and over, in a very controlled, artful way. Or many people did, for many generations. For perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. And finally they noticed and codified patterns that let them reliably replicate these useful objects.

These were so useful that in the exact same region, the Olduvai Gorge, the exact same objects were being made one million years after their invention.

The British Museum provides play-by-play detail:

This example is made from fine-grained, green volcanic lava called phonolite. Using a stone hammer, the maker has carefully struck flakes alternately from both faces around the entire edge, making it thinner at the tip and thicker and heavier at the bottom, with a regular edge all round. 

Imagine how much more useful the Olduvai handaxes were compared to any old rock you picked up off the ground.

… handaxes were used for a variety of everyday tasks, including all aspects of skinning and butchering an animal or working other materials such as wood

Not all version of these handaxes are as big as the one pictured, though. The versions used for hunting would have been lighter and smaller and as carefully honed as possible, whereas the versions used for skinning and butchering would have been as thick as possible, and possibly less carefully made.

In order to survive, people spent their time perfecting this axe. Effort well spent: they survived and thus, here we are as a species – not extinct yet.

Fast forward 1.5 million years, from East Africa to North America, to our recently deceased stone age homo sapien grandparents. There, 13,000 years ago, we still sharpened rocks to survive, yielding the Clovis point. This was quite an improvements over Olduvai stonetech – sleeker, more balanced, lighter, usuable as spearheads.

That’s because just like our ancient rock-artisans, we iterated improvements: a better blade stone or a better hammer stone. Maybe a new striking technique. Or maybe we applied heat. We applied Agile and eked out piecemeal innovations.

Whatever case, we were thinking inside the box – the “sharpen rocks to survive” box. Even if some of us were quite creative as we did so.

*    *    *

Then – boom – true innovation struck: PsyOps hunting.

The first Buffalo Jumps happened about 5,500 years ago in the great plains of what is now Head-Smashed-In((“In Blackfoot, the name for the site is Estipah-skikikini-kots. According to legend, a young Blackfoot wanted to watch the buffalo plunge off the cliff from below but was buried underneath the falling buffalo. He was later found dead under the pile of carcasses, where he had his head smashed in.” via, Canada.

[enable images to see buffalo jump]

Long before riding-horses, rifles, or bows & arrows appeared in North America, our forebears figured out how to use coyote costumes and carefully orchestrated movements to corral herds of bison from grazing pastures to steep cliffs.  Whipped into a panic stampede, some members of the herds were forced off steep cliffs, to fall to their deaths below. This yielded far more meat than any handaxe, no matter how light or how sharp.

Who knows how the first Buffalo Jump happened? Maybe one day, after thousands of years hunting bison, a few crazy hunters started wearing coyote masks? Maybe to startle their prey into an ambush consisting of a fellow hunter hidden on some perch. And then the lightbulb went off,

what if we drove them to the cliff?!

That’s pure speculation, by the way. But here’s what didn’t happen – a CTO co-founder didn’t say, “Okay guys, can we think outside the box here for a sec?”.

People who ask for outside-the-box-thinking might mean well, but they’re not understanding how it works. They’re asking the wrong question. They’re over-relying on meeting-banter to ideate. They’re thinking too hard and now allowing space to not think.

By the way. they are often the same kinds of people who are bent on productivity. I know because I’ve been that person. The problem is that productivity stamps out the opportunity to (repeating myself for emphasis):

  1. Notice patterns others don’t
  2. Do or learn in many different ways, to notice patterns
  3. Do or learn the same way, obsessively, to notice patterns

And as we all love to blog about, productivity is not equal to effectiveness.

They want you to perfect the processes by which you make the axe, make more axes per hour, “innovate” better axe materials, and improve axe UX.

But no matter how many amazing axes you make, you’ll never drive a herd of 2,000-pound buffalo off a cliff and feed 100 family members for a year.

Happy hunting
– Rowan