#467  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 5          May 2000         

Getting Out of The Box
by Kurt Hanks

Mr. Hanks (Indian Wells, California; phone 760-674-1938; visualizer@worldnet.att.net; home.att.net/~kurthanks/page1.html) designs museums and theme parks, creates instructional programs centered on seeing things in more meaningful ways.  He is the author of Up Your Productivity (1993) and The Change Navigator (1994), both published by Crisp Publications, Menlo Park, CA.

I’ve watched a company slowly slide itself into insignificance. It once dominated its industry, but now its impact, as well as its stock, is a fraction of what it once was. Recently, a new CEO again tried to implement some much-needed change. One third of the employees were let go. Millions in new capital were invested. The entire structure of the company was dramatically altered to improve productivity and capture new opportunities.

Yet, after the smoke cleared from all of these activities, and the sound dimmed from all the motivational talks and buzzwords, nothing fundamental changed. Behind declarations of dramatic and lasting change, people in this company still continue with the same habitual behavior of the past. One manager said, “With all this movement around here you would think something would actually move around here!”  Everyone in this company is now deep inside something called The Box.

Stuck in the Box

Like the people in this company, we all get stuck in The Box, frantically searching over the same ground again and again for a seemingly obvious solution that is never found. See if any of these examples sounds familiar:

  Ann again remarries the same man only this time with a different face and name.

  After years of failure, the Sanfords try again with their troubled son who stays troubled.

  Despite the implementation of a variety of successful programs used in other companies to curb employee theft, the increase in corporate stealing continues.

  A department won’t live up to its obvious possibilities even with another change in leadership, improvement in the quality of teams involved, still more finances, and a move to new offices.

In all the years I’ve served as a consultant this has been my biggest problem--getting people to move out of their boxes. Seeing this, I developed a tool to effectively get people and organizations out of their boxes and moving forward.  What follows is an introduction to this tool with its three guiding principles:

1. You are in The Box when a problem causes you to repeatedly and unsuccessfully search over the same ground for its solution.

These problems remain defiantly free from any solution, all the while soaking up an enormous amount of time, energy and other resources. When our solutions don’t work, we say to ourselves, “I must not have the right solution or it wasn’t implemented correctly.”  So we redouble our efforts running in endless circles. We are stuck in the box.

2. The Box is created when similar interactions or exchanges are governed by a rule that can’t be acknowledged.

All relationships and interactions are exchanges, and these exchanges are run by rules. A governing rule is the over-arching one that directs, defines, and limits a set of exchanges. When a governing rule can’t be acknowledged by those people it affects, this generates a rigid and confining situation of preset exchanges called The Box. These hidden rules block searching in more fruitful locations that would produce the most effective solutions.

Here are statements from people in two separate companies that have hidden rules embedded within them (not hard to see, but are totally impossible to bring up to their owner’s attention): “We couldn’t possibly be missing those funds because of theft. The director is the most honest man I know.” “We must show our clients our innovative leadership and do all phases of this showcase project in-house.” Both comments contain hidden and unacknowledged rules that are restricting the abilities of these two companies in finding effective resolutions.

3. Anyone can get out of The Box once they see and accept the governing rule that created it. 

An essential part of any search for solutions is the hidden governing rule that invisibly directs the search for solutions. When the usually invisible governing rule, that is directing the situation, is made visible, things automatically change. When an individual or group sees and accepts this formerly hidden rule, they always have a fundamental shift in perception and thinking. They then move out of their box.

I know a silly parlor game where one person goes out of a room full of people. Those left, collectively, select something in the room. The person returns to the room and tries to guess what was selected while a moderator asks the group questions. This pretender always guesses correctly. The others try to come up with the secret on how the fake psychic was so uncannily accurate. Nobody comes up with the answer, which is absurdly obvious. As the moderator asks, “Is it the piano? Is it the black dog?  How about the vase? The psychic is following a simple hidden rule: after the first thing the moderator points out that begins with the letter “B," it is always the very next thing he points out with a question that is it. I’ve seen geniuses flounder and fail on this one.

Interestingly, once you know this rule you can never really play this absurd game again. The same with seeing a formerly hidden governing rule, once you know and accept what it is, you can’t keep playing the same way--you can’t stay in the box.

Paradigm Mapping

Paradigm Mapping is a method I’ve used to get people to clearly see and to accept the hidden rules governing their exchanges and move out of The Box. A visual representation of a person’s or group’s hidden rules is constructed in front of them. By using quickly made images, with accompanying notation, and continual input from the viewers, what is formerly unconscious is now brought into awareness. 

Let me show you how this is done. A facilitator puts words and images on a large white board in front of the group. He becomes their hands, jogs their minds, calms egos, clarifies, etc. While this process is happening, the facilitator is erasing, correcting, questioning, and refining until a final consensus is reached that what they are viewing is their governing rule. Seeing everything slowly develop before them, dramatically increases their ownership and acceptance of what is written on the board.

To effectively visualize another’s rules, the facilitator creating the image must concentrate on reading a consistent pattern behind peoples’ exchanges, then graphically summarizing that pattern. These images need to reflect to the viewers what they are communicating and agreeing to. Also, the images are simple and symbolic (using sophisticated drawings or images can get in the way by hindering easy participation). Attention is focused on creating this image or map, not on each other or the facilitator. Visually represented, everyone can see which rules are dominating their interactions and exchanges. They can have an understanding of what has locked them in their box.

I worked with a lady where we had to manage a number of ongoing projects. I quite liked her, but she had one habit that kept getting in the way of us all effectively doing our jobs. She continually brought up the issue of ‘unfairness’ to women.  She had been poorly treated in the past, had seen other women have similar problems, and wanted to do something about it.

The problem we had to accomplish had absolutely nothing to do with this issue. The time needed in other areas was being spent as a forum to further her cause. Finally, something had to be done to focus on the projects at hand. The buck was passed and it ended up on my lap.

Two questions written out (only to her) on a whiteboard was all it took. The first one was, “Have you ever seen me discriminate against a woman in any manner?” The second one was, “What does fairness-to-women have to do with finishing these projects?” Then I left for home. I didn’t need her to literally answer them for me. Behind these two questions was the rule of a box she was attempting to put our entire team in. To her credit, everything immediately improved.

I was consulting for a small company that had been diligently working on the same problem for months. They had tried everything. “We just haven’t found the right solution yet,” is what they repeatedly kept saying.

Being an outsider, I had the advantage. I wasn’t yet tainted by all of the diligent effort. I could see that the one place that they hadn’t looked was the over-arching rule that they were following to resolve the situation. They had looked at everything else too many times.

They were trying to expand their services, but didn’t have enough money to make the necessary improvements.  The rule that wasn’t being openly dealt with was that the company leadership wasn’t giving them the needed cash.

I found myself drawing concentric circles and stick figures on a couple of large white boards in the conference room. I visually showed them how they saw their problem, and their attempted solutions. Then they collectively saw a solution--they were solving the wrong problem. Their real problem wasn’t the customer, but their corporate leadership. Their bosses were not seeing the value in what this department was attempting to do. They needed to do a sales job on the higher ups.

The department head stated that he never saw a meeting get so focused in such a short time with just a few scribbles and rough notes. He said, “Your doing this, whatever it is, was instrumental in resolving a problem that had remained totally immovable. I even watched my own people come up with effective solutions when, the day before, they were mentally frozen!”

Perhaps Paradigm Mapping can help you get out of your box.  

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