Stephen Shapiro, in his excellent book, 24/7 Innovation, explains the difference between box and line thinking, and why most opportunities for innovation within organization can be found in the latter category.

I am currently in the process of reading Stephen Shapiro’s excellent book, 24/7 Innovation. One of the concepts within it that has really impressed me is the idea of looking at opportunities for innovation in terms of boxes and lines — in other words, like the elements of an organizational chart. In these brief excerpts from the book, Shapiro explains these concepts:

“In fact it is the lines connecting the boxes on a flow chart, the interdependencies, that are critical to the performance of a business. What you do inside of each box is less important than how the boxes fit together.”

The limits of “box” thinking

In the last decade or so, Shapiro explains, organizations became obsessed with business process re-engineering. But many firms carried BPR to its logical extreme. They ended up with binders full of process flow charts that described how to make work within one’s “box” go as efficiently as possible, but had little idea how to take the next steps — “coordinating the processes, coming up with innovative ideas and insights, and finding some talented people to fit it all together into a smoothly running business… The truth is that doing isolated things more efficiently, faster and cheaper is not necessarily better for the organization as a whole.”

The advantages of “line” thinking

“The close contact in coordination between different parts of the business create a climate of open communication and cooperation that in turn will allow Cross functional innovation. When this happens, the company begins to develop innovation as its core competence. By focusing on the interdependencies rather than the prescriptive aspects of isolated activities or traditional processes, the worker gains flexibility to define how to do the work within the context of those links.”

I love this analogy! It does a great job of leveraging something that we’re already familiar with: the organizational chart, with its visual depiction of roles (boxes) and relationships (lines) — but it helps to whack our thinking about it to a whole new, innovative level.