Thinking out-of-the-conformity-box | Sunday Observer

Thinking out-of-the-conformity-box

16 January, 2022

“I ncrease productivity through innovation by being flexible enough to embrace opposing views enhancing your creativity.”–Claus Meckenheim.

Teachers, professors, business consultants, motivational gurus, and even politicians use the phrase “you need to think out-of-the-box” to find innovative solutions to problems their audience is concerned about.

With rapid changes in the ecosystem, the climate changes and depletion of natural resources have created challenges of finding innovative solutions to new sets of problems on a daily basis.

Creative problem solving has become one of the most ‘in-demand’ skills in the 21st century. Most of the time, even the people who use this phrase don’t have a clue what it really means and whether it will help the listener.

The greater danger is that the moment one says “think out of the box” even the people who had no idea that there was a box will start imagining a box.

It almost prompts the listener to think inside the box of thinking out-of-the box. The moment one tries to follow the instructions to ‘think out-of-the-box’ one is automatically in the box of ‘conformity’.

Good intentions

All babies are born with creativity programed into them but the adults they come in contact with, starting from the parents of the baby, gradually put them in a sequence of nested boxes. Perhaps with good intentions of making it easier for them to conform to social, cultural, political, legal, and economic constraints they have to live within.

Children, from the kindergarten itself, start learning that the rewards for conformity would outweigh any possible satisfaction they would have imagined in challenging the status quo. After twelve to thirteen years of formal primary and secondary education, and in some cases four to nine, ten more years of formal tertiary education, almost every newborn is well trained to conform to the existing norms of their employers and/or the rulers of the country.


By the time young adults reach their late twenties, through their own experience or by observing the previous generation, they learn about the disadvantageous of nonconformity at every level.

Thinking out of the box is not really an action but a mindset. It is just the way the world is being perceived. The box is the limitations and boundaries we have created in our own minds.

Once it is created it will not be that easy to get out of it just to solve a problem and come back in again to sustain life as usual. Studies show that people are often much more prone to conform than they believe they might be.

Most people believe that they are non-conformist enough to stand up to a group against a few things they do not agree with but conformist enough to blend in with the rest preserving the group identity.

Different experiments have also shown that the tendency to conform grows with increasing number of people in the group. One other interesting observation through such experiments was the impact of one non-conformist would have on the rest of the group in reducing the tendency to conform.

Some subjects of the experiment who went along with the group knowing that the group was wrong indicated that they did so because they did not want to risk being seen as the odd one out.

Conformity increased when the task became more difficult or when the other members of the group were of a higher social status. However, the conformity tends to decrease when people are able to respond privately or if they have support from at least one other individual in the group.

People have experienced this type of conformist behaviour throughout their lives in all types of different groups they were in from kindergarten to university senate and council meetings and from corporate boards, Parliaments all the way to the collective bodies such as the United Nations.

The decisions such collective bodies make are usually based on the information at hand at the time processed through a collective mental model created by the deep-seated ideas about how the world works.

One may have the best possible information, but if the collective mental model processing that information is out of sync with reality, then the decisions will certainly be skewed too. There are all types of theories and procedures such as, strategic decision making, brainstorming and management by objective to assist the process of developing a proper collective mental model.

Some of the key factors driving any such model would be communication, technology, organisational structure, diversity, timing, adaptability, action, and at the heart of it all, deciding the effective dosage of each factor in the concoction, the leadership.

One of the most difficult aspects of decision making is taking the biases, other than the one towards the common objective, out of the process. This is where a leader could use the benefits of listening to opposing ideas rather than listening to conformists who are going to say ‘yes’ to anything the leader says. The old saying “two heads are better than one” certainly does not refer to one thinking head and the other non-thinking, ‘yes’ saying head.

Key factors

It refers to two thinking heads that can communicate their thinking clearly to each other so that their collective intelligence can produce a better decision than what each would have done by itself.

A true leader would welcome a diverse array of ideas especially those that were not penetrated by his/her own radar. Anyone who has been involved in a decision-making process with a group of people would agree that the hardest part of the process is extracting the ideas of the members who have different perspectives all together.

There are leaders, CEOs of companies or Commanding Officers of militaries who have instructed one or two members in the group to disagree with what he/she says and provide an alternative perception in order to encourage the rest of the group members to express their own perceptions even if those are not in agreement with what the leader has been preaching till that time.

All this, of course, must be done in good faith with the intention of achieving the common objective of improving the organisation. Putting on shows like Parliamentary debates and finally voting for the decision only on the basis of the political party who tabled the request to make the decision is a tried and tested formula for disaster.


Therefore, if the leader wants to get out of the conformity box, then he/she should build a culture and create an environment where all the members in the decision-making body would feel accepted and empowered to burn their own conformity boxes and speak up and share their thoughts with the intention of achieving the common goal.

The writer has served in higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected].