“Obstacles do not block the path; they are the path.” — Zen proverb

Steve Jobs did not particularly care for the original concept of Apple’s “Think Different” and “To the crazy ones” campaign. True story. To hear Rob Siltanen tell it, Jobs initially called the script crap (we are being kind here). The then creative director and managing partner at TBWA/Chiat/Day recalls Jobs being blatantly harsh about the commercial, an astonishing revelation since the famously chronicled pioneer of the microcomputer often gets credit for the spot that helped orchestrate one of the greatest corporate turnarounds of all time. The moral of this story is not that Jobs resisted, then relented to the idea. It is that he had the foresight to do so. He had the guts to think differently about something that, well, some people thought differently about.

Depending on which account you follow, Jobs knew that the campaign was a way to inspire consumers and recharge the Apple brand. He understood that consumers (and his employees) had forgotten what Apple stood for. When he took the 20,000-foot view of the situation, Jobs knew that thinking differently—being a little crazy, if you will—was the right thing to do.

So, if thinking differently is such an extraordinary mental move and can truly make a difference in how people act and respond, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Patrick Ungashick believes that thinking differently is a crucial attribute for any brand. It is a requisite step to acting differently, which in turn produces different results. “For any brand—and the products and services behind that brand—to separate itself from the pack, there must delivery of a different experience for the customer, a scalable operational advantage, or a sustainable approach to product innovation,” says Ungashick, CEO of NAVIX Consultants. “All of that starts with different thinking.”

“Thinking outside the box helps you force yourself
to stop and look at situations differently.”
— Patrick Ungashick, CEO, NAVIX Consultants

One of the best places to start is by looking for unseen intersections between two different fields to find advances or advantages. Take the entertainment industry. When the creators of HBO’s mega-series “Game of Thrones” were pitching the idea, they did not hype up magic and dragons. Rather, they said the show would be “The Sopranos meets Middle Earth.”

“That’s different,” Ungashick says. “They found the intersection of compelling, tense family drama meeting the fascinating other world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits in Middle Earth.”

While rising to the challenge of creative thinking is encouraged, you must be careful not to limit creativity by simply forcing a different mindset. “Thinking outside the box helps you force yourself to stop and look at situations differently,” Ungashick says. “It works so well because, to start, you have to intentionally describe what the box is and where the lines are currently drawn. That effort alone brings clarity and insight to whatever you are seeking to improve, redesign or redefine.”

In the end, thinking differently leads to greater empathy, because to think differently, you must stretch your eye and heart to see and comprehend new angles and insights. Doing so increases our understanding of yourself, others and the communities you serve. “This leads to greater self and social awareness,” Ungashick says.

Put it on your calendar

Cindy McGovern, Ph.D., believes that thinking outside of the box should be a required part of every staff meeting. She says that part of the reason we have a hard time innovating is that we are stuck in our own boxes and silos—too busy to step outside of our routines and try something new or even think of something different.

“When we think outside of the box, we can’t help but innovate,” says McGovern, CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting. “I encourage managers to assign their people to poke holes in their organizations’ boxes and let the light in. Great ideas can come from the craziest notions. Here’s one of my favorite outside-of-the-box notions: Every job is a sales job. Even employees who work at reception, on the help desk and in accounting should think of themselves as sales reps for the company.”

The key is that we must work harder to train ourselves to think differently. It takes practice. In the day-to-day battle to keep up with the competition, our coworkers and the person next door, we sometimes forget to think at all. For example, McGovern recommends that clients stop worrying about Brand X and instead focus on what their customers need and want. That’s how a brand stands out from the crowd.

But to note, thinking takes planning. If you are not in the right headspace to be creative, it will not happen. “Ever notice how you get some of your best ideas while you’re on vacation?” McGovern asks. “That’s because you have time to think. Once you plan to spend some time thinking, you can force yourself out of your own box.”

To shake out of the same old, same old doldrums, McGovern recommends physically trying something new—a workout class, a professional development course, a book, a podcast or anything out of your normal routine or habit. “This pushes me outside of my box, and that’s when I start to see things a bit differently,” she says. “Once you are out of your own box, ask yourself, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we did XYZ?’ Go nuts with it. Think of all the pie-in-the-sky stuff you can. That’s where innovation starts.”

“Once you plan to spend some time thinking,
you can force yourself out of your own box.”

— Cindy McGovern, CEO, Orange Leaf Consulting


Mad scientists abound

Creative thinkers are “mad scientists,” and they are everywhere. They are the people who see what others do not. They give themselves permission to draw outside of the lines. They are not always the most organized, confident or even articulate employees, but they are the game changers.

“I like to think of them as artists,” McGovern says. “They are free thinkers who can lead judgment-free creative conversations that allow employees to tap into ideas, values and beliefs that they might not even realize they have.”

If a department has a culture of “no idea is a bad idea,” those who might otherwise self-censor often make suggestions that stun colleagues who never expected such creativity. “We can’t help but be changed when we experience other cultures, view the work of the masters or listen to the perspective of those who live in conditions so unlike we have here,” McGovern says. “We return to work with big ideas, a broader understanding and, if we’re lucky, a more open mind and welcoming nature.”

Ungashick says that while he does not see a single profile of a creative thinker, courage is part of the mix. “It takes some level of bravery to challenge conventions and assumptions. I would add impatience or perhaps even intolerance to the mix too—one must be unwilling to tolerate a status quo in order to invest the effort required to think and act creatively.”