Illustration: Pat Perry

Once upon a time, long before Chipotle became mired in their latest food-borne outbreak crisis, I found myself getting lunch there one day. The food itself was underwhelming but I was absolutely mesmerized by the paper bag it was delivered in.

Chipotle had started publishing quick-read literary pieces from “Cultivating Thought” author series, curated by Jonathan Foer. This brilliant addition transformed a humble paper bag to an edutainment moment.

The delightful experience aside, this is where I discovered a provocative piece from Sheri Fink on limitless thinking, “Two-minute case against limits” where the author makes a vivid point about the limits people subconsciously put around themselves.

Often in life, the most important question we can ask ourselves is: do we really have the problem we think we have?

In her narrative, researchers ask people this age-old question, “Who gets the goods of society when there’s not enough to go around?”

This is no doubt a moral question but the responses highlight the potential and promise of limitless, innovative thinking.

“People resist answering the question. They offer all kinds of crazy ideas for how to avoid needing to ration. This frustrates the researchers, who try to force them into answering the question. But some of the ideas are wonderful: New medical devices that don’t require electricity. Organizational efficiencies that would stretch resources longer. This kind of creative thinking and improvisation is exactly what I’ve seen save lives in disasters.”

Over my past decade in the Silicon Valley, I’ve worked with many smart people and I’ve also worked with innovative people. Here’s the difference between the two.

Smart people answer the question that’s posed to them and they do it really well.

Innovators go beyond the question and get to the “why” ie. the real issue underlying the question and find creative solutions, similar to folks in Fink’s story.

Here’s an example of how this plays out in corporate life. I was on the operations team for a well-known company and we had to reduce the number of unanswered customer support questions in our online communities.

Month after month we would sit in a dreary conference with the leadership team to make sense of the dismal numbers being reported and figure out how to improve them. As you would expect, there was no shortage of smart people in the room.

After much deliberation and data crunching, the smart answer was to prioritize questions with the most views for responding as those were deemed to be more important and weighted more heavily than ones with low viewership.

The innovator’s answer was to use the questions to decide new product features and that would reduce the overall number of questions. Obviously, this would take way more time and effort than the smart approach.

No prizes for guessing which approach was blessed by management.

If you were paying any attention at all, you would quickly realize that the smart approach was simply about managing the numbers while the innovative solution was about building a better product and creating happy users. But try arguing that with a roomful of people high-fiving themselves for the improved numbers.

Not surprising, innovators are somewhat of a rare breed in the corporate world.

So let me turn this situation over to you.

If you were in that room and had to make the call. Which solution would you have picked?

If you picked the first one, you are obviously a smart person and you will do very well in corporate life but your product is doomed for failure. (And the product under discussion in my scenario flailed painfully for a while and eventually died.)

If you chose the second option, you are most likely an innovator who has the potential to change the world but you will frustrate your manager and may even get yourself fired in the process.

As kids, smart people were the ones who stayed within the lines and colored inside the box. While the innovative kids were obliterating the box and creating their own unique shapes. So if you are getting way too many notes from the pre-K teacher about little Bella’s creative drawings of headless princesses, she may be an innovator-in-the-making.

But as we grow older, in both our personal and professional lives, we are constantly faced with a choice between the easy answers and the hard way. Many of us are tempted to take the former. This pervasive culture of easy answers and seduction of quick wins is exactly what’s killing innovation.

“Thinking outside the box” is now synonymous with staying tethered to the box and innovation has become a laundry list of ideas that fit neatly within that box.

Sometimes a better mousetrap just isn’t enough. Perhaps the answer is a cat (or a mouse-hating dog). But in trying to “improve” and perfect the mousetrap aka the box, we lose sight of the real issue — the “why”.

So if you want to see real innovation in your organization, start with one simple question.

What if there is no box?

This post also appeared on LinkedIn

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