Thinking In Boxes

How we are impacted by our mental boxes and what we can do about it to innovate our way out of crises

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Recently I have been thinking about boxes. Not actual boxes, but mental, abstract boxes, which shape our mindsets. I have been asking myself questions such as “If this group of people is considered essential, what does that mean for the non-essential group?” or “If this group of companies is considered to be IMPACT-companies, where does that leave all other companies?” These questions are not trivial. The answers are linked to hard decisions about who gets to work, where investments are made etc.

So what, you may argue; we need to focus on essential work during a lockdown and if we want to impact (positively, it is understood) the climate, we need to invest in companies with a sustainability agenda. And right you are. So let me get out of my box and explain the issues I see.

My concern with boxes is, that they reduce rather complex issues to virtually binary propositions. Are you essential or not. Are you green or not. We are, however, talking about two complex dynamic systems, the environment and our societies, and they even interact with each other. In complex systems it can be very difficult to foresee the full impact of changing a parameter. Our societies are closely interlinked networks with high levels of interdepen-dencies. Systems like these are not reduced to binary propositions or 8-second soundbites, which my teenage-daughter assures me is the attention span on TikTok. We often say, that nothing is either black or white and yet we treat complex matters, as if they are either or. I prefer the nuances of the full colour palette.

One thing that surprised me, when the Danish prime minister decided to pull the big OFF-switch and shut down the country, was how relatively easy that was. Not the decision, which surely was hard, but actually doing it. Stay at home, unless you happen to be a doctor or a nurse or other essential staff. Done! OK, that’s simplifying it a bit too much, but I have my boxes too.

Rebooting society, on the other hand, is really hard. This was less of a surprise. The interdependencies make it very difficult to start one part of the society (for instance employees back in the office) without opening schools, child care, public transport and so on. The frontline and the mission was clear during the lockdown. Healthcare resources had priority.

By nature, the frontline will always be visible. In a health crisis, healthcare workers naturally make up the frontline. If there is a fire, it will be the firefighters. In a similar way companies tackling environmental issues (clean water, clean air etc.) will naturally make up the frontline in the climate crisis. But they are not acting alone. Behind the frontline there is a vital supporting infrastructure of people and companies doing their part to keep everything running. Our global supply chains have taken a very heavy blow from Covid-19 and there are many reasons to re-evaluate, if they are designed in the right way. Cost cutting has been a key driver for decades at the expense of other value drivers such as know-how, proximity and resilience. It is clear, that something needs to be done, but we are not going to do it by thinking inside the same boxes, that created the situation. During the lockdown we have however also learned, that we are capable of changing our habits, breaking out of our boxes, while being boxed in at home, and we have collaborated and innovated applying technology hitherto scorned as being outside of the right box.

The climate crisis is also challenging our supply chains. It has been more obvious for some time, that it is not enough to claim that you are a sustainable company, if your suppliers are not. The chain of dependencies is more obvious, but the labels on the boxes are not. A company manufacturing electric cars is in the good box, the IMPACT box. The companies manufacturing the polymers (from oil) used to make the plastic parts essential for electronics and for keeping weight down are in the bad box. The cars need to drive on something, roads most of the time, which are made of…? More bad boxes. This is not to pick on electric cars. Pick any other industry and a similar chain will emerge because of the complex interdependencies. Simply demanding to remove the bad boxes and ignoring these chains is deciding to put a blind eye to how our complex systems are made and supported.

We are not going to solve the climate crisis by thinking inside the same boxes, which created the situation.

We are still fighting Covid-19, but we also know, that the climate crisis was there before Covid-19 and it will still be there after. We are learning new things every day now and it is time not to close the lid on the first box to reboot from scratch for the next. Rebooting is hard, remember.

Thinking of boxes reminded me of an excellent article from Harvard Business Review from 2015. It is called “No One Can Think Outside the Box” authored by Mark Chussil. You can find the article here and it is recommended reading. It will take something like 3 well spent minutes.

Mark Chussil defines boxes like this:

A box is a frame, a paradigm, a habit, a perspective, a silo, a self-imposed set of limits; a box is context and interpretation.

He goes on to highlight, that boxes are dangerous, when they get obvious and harden into cultural truths. They are even invisible until you actually look for them. Trying to think or act outside the box is futile, maybe even dangerous. Trying to think inside as many boxes as possible however is not.

We are all stuck inside our own boxes. How do we go about thinking in as many boxes as possible? We engage with as many and as diverse people as possible. We make sure our teams are diverse, our organisations are diverse, our leadership and our interaction with the world outside our own company covers all types of companies from startups, to scaleups to corporates. Across cultures and geographies. Across all genders. When diverse minds collaborate, we can get the innovative IMPACT we need. We are ALL essential for this mission.

Pulling it all together or — wrapping it all up in a neat box with a bow — this brings me to the following:

If we want to maximize the impact of our efforts to deal with the climate crisis we need to think in chains and interdependent systems. We need to rethink our processes and the way we work and live. Some of these challenges are very complex and hard to deal with. We need to embrace technologies such as AI wherever the technology can help us deal with these complexities. We are ALL essential in this effort.

Thinking new innovative thoughts inside as many boxes as possible requires a maximum of diversity in thinking. It requires real diversity in boards, in leadership, in organisations. The chain of boxes does not stop at the company gate. We need to collaborate more across supply chains with our suppliers and with other industries. The best solutions will likely be found outside your company.

Let’s think inside more boxes together!



Passionate about entrepreneurship, diversity, lifelong learning and experimenting. And books.

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Niklas Hall

Passionate about entrepreneurship, diversity, lifelong learning and experimenting. And books.