I recently started to read Stephen Shapiro’s book, 24/7 Innovation, […]

I recently started to read Stephen Shapiro’s book, 24/7 Innovation, and discovered this neat analogy about “box thinking” vs. “line thinking,” and how it can affect a firm’s ability to innovate:

“The boxes that most people operate in are focused on activities, computers, people or departments within a company. But it is the lines, the interconnections and interdependencies between the boxes, where innovation emerges. Innovative thinking comes from making connections. Connections between boxes. Connections between ideas. Connections between companies. Focusing on the lines frees an organization to improve within the guidelines of the simple structure.”

This is a great analogy. When I think of boxes – like the symbols on an organizational chart – I think of something that draws a frame around someone’s role within an organization, and limits how they can contribute. It also suggests flow charts with discreet steps that, as part of a re-engineering effort, can be analyzed to see which boxes don’t add value. In both cases, the focus is mainly on the boxes – on the activities or roles.

Focusing on the lines suggests a wealth of new associations, connections, relationships and business models. Our minds work by associating thoughts and ideas with each other, so it stands to reason that these “white spaces” are rich ground for uncovering innovation opportunities. What’s even more interesting is Shapiro’s assertion that the technologies we use today make it possible to forge new, creative connections, and to re-organize and redeploy them quickly and flexibly:

“The current shift in technology is the most exciting yet — the convergence of the Internet, the World Wide Web, e-mail, telecommunications and computer networks. And as a result, our business models are beginning to focus on the lines (i.e. interdependencies). This leads us into the era of collaboration, integration and innovation. The key is not to use technology in isolation, but as a tool to connect the boxes.”

Boxes and lines. How do they constrain and liberate your thinking? Great food for thought!