Year after year, my friend Bob listened to discussions about out of-the-box thinking. It has become the ultimate business cliché. Corporate meetings overflow with discussions about who is in the box, who is out of the box, and what the box actually is. After feeling boxed in by all this chatter, Bob couldn’t stand it any more. He had to do something extreme. He was in search of a breakthrough, but wasn’t sure where to start.
So Bob wandered down to his local appliance store to buy a refrigerator, just to get a box he could fit into. Bob encountered a salesman named Artie in the appliance department, who quickly became confused by Bob’s lack of interest in any refrigerator features. Bob explained to him that those features were too ‘in-the-box’ to be appealing to him, but Bob soon realized that Artie was too ‘boxed in’ in this instance to understand.
Artie looked befuddled when Bob asked his only question:
“Which refrigerator comes with the biggest box?”
This question was not covered in the appliance store training manual.
To calm Artie down, Bob informed him that refrigerators used to be called ice boxes.
Following that line of thinking, Bob asked for the largest refrigerator with the fewest features.
As soon as Artie located the bulkiest, lowest rated model in the showroom, Bob was thrilled. However, Artie was nearing a state of shock when Bob asked if he could pay for the refrigerator but only keep the box. Clearly, Bob’s thinking was so far out-of-the-box that salesman in the store was able to help him. Artie stared at Bob as he came from another planet. Bob had to take the refrigerator with the box.
The next morning, a large truck backed up Bob’s driveway. Two deliverymen unloaded the refrigerator and asked where the kitchen was. Bob told them he already had a refrigerator in the kitchen, so could they unpack this new one and then take it away, because Bob only wanted to keep the box. This request terrified Rafael the crew chief. He had never heard such a request. There was no policy or protocol for him to follow. Rafael stammered that he could only take the refrigerator back if it was in its box.
Once again, Bob had hit the wall.
Bob knew it was necessary to get the refrigerator out of the box so he could begin his experiment. He directed the men to unpack the refrigerator and leave it in the garage next to the box.
Saying goodbye, the delivery crew looked at Bob in a similar way that a German Shepard looks at his master when something incomprehensible has happened. As the truck rumbled down the driveway, Bob was finally ready to get to work.
It was chilly in the garage as Bob crawled into his seven-foot long refrigerator box. The first thing he noticed was how dark it is inside a box. After closing the entry flap, he sat down and took a deep breath. Looking around, Bob could see nothing but blackness. The inside of a box can quickly become a suffocating prison. Bob tried lying down, then rose to his knees and shouted as loud as he could. The thick cardboard walls deadened the sound of his voice. The folly of his experiment began to weigh Bob down.
What had he expected the inside of a box to be like?
Of course it was stifling and pitch dark. Long exposure to this condition might lead to asphyxiation or some other physical disability. Who can survive life in a box?
Bob’s mind was racing as he tried to figure out what to do next. Should he meditate? Should he try to sleep? Should he escape the box and return the refrigerator for a refund?
After a few deep breaths, Bob started taking on a prison mentality. He had seen the movie The Great Escape, and watched numerous other prisons break movies. He had also seen The Birdman of Alcatraz in which Burt Lancaster turns his jail cell into a bird sanctuary.
Now Bob was thinking!
What would Burt Lancaster do in this situation?
Should he try a birdcall?
Unable to see anything, Bob remembered that there was a pen in his shirt pocket. He pulled out the pen and started poking at one of the walls of the box. Soon he had created a pinhole. Through the pinhole streamed a tiny beam of light. This was the first sign of progress. Bob was elated, and quickly crawled around the box poking holes in at least a hundred different spots. Not only was light streaming into the box, but also fresh air began to flow through those tiny holes. Digging further through one of the holes, Bob managed to carve an opening large enough to see into the garage. A small fan was only three feet away. Bob crawled out of the box, aimed the fan towards the box and turned it on. Picking up a nearby sofa cushion, he returned to solitary confinement…or should we say: his box.
Suddenly, life in the box was bearable. Comfortable on his cushion, Bob was tempted to start writing commemorative graffiti on the inside of the box with his pen, but instead sat down to contemplate his next move. He pulled out his cell phone and called a local Chinese Restaurant to order some lunch. Then he phoned his wife. She asked Bob what he was doing. Bob told her he was boxing. She didn’t even flinch as she simply warned him “just be careful…. I’ll be home for dinner at 6”.
Bob’s spirits were definitely rising.
He darted out of the box to unlock the garage door and then dragged a small television set into his box. It was connected to cable. Bob turned on CNN. Now he was plugged into the outside world. He was ready to check on the stock market.
The sound of a small car pulled up to the house. Bob heard a car door open, so he shouted out ‘I’m in the garage – the door is open”. Fortunately the deliveryman had a good sense of hearing and understood English. When he entered the garage, Bob yelled over here – Inside the box!” As if nothing was unusual, the deliveryman opened the box flap and handed him a hot aromatic bag of food. Bob handed the man some cash with a big tip and asked him to shut the garage door on the way out. Unpacking his meal, Bob saw on the stock ticker that his stocks were up. Over a bowl of wonton soup, Bob made a sales call on his cell phone. Amazingly, he closed the deal.
As finishing his delicious lunch, Bob decided to expand his plan. Things were getting crowded in his box. If he had more boxes, he could probably fit a small futon and coffee table inside and start using his computer. Since the computer was connected to WIFI, he could run his whole business out of just a few boxes. A third box could easily house a small file cabinet and an all-In-one printer. Bob can still remember what an out-of-the box idea ‘all-in-one’ printers once were. Now they are vestigial dinosaurs for those primitive enough to use paper products.
Bob realized that the privacy of the box was serene. He had adapted to a whole new way of doing business. He had never had a home office. Now he decided to terminate his office lease and start working out of his garage.
Bob returned to the appliance store to buy some more refrigerators. However, he was worried about Artie’s mental state, fearing that this multiple out-of-the-box thought process might cause Artie to faint. Bob considered going to a different appliance store for each refrigerator, but that idea didn’t ‘scale’,
Cautiously approaching Artie, Bob asked if there was a discount for buying multiple refrigerators. Although in a daze about Bob’s unique purchasing habits, Artie was able to get Bob a significant discount for buying three more refrigerators. When the same delivery crew backed his truck up Bob’s driveway the next day, they knew exactly where to unload. While unpacking the boxes in the garage, Rafael asked if Bob consider selling one of the unused refrigerators to a friend of his. Rafael unpacked all the boxes and then purchased one of the refrigerators for more than Bob paid for it. As his truck rolled down the driveway, Bob realized he could make money selling refrigerators once they were out of the box.
That is how my friend Bob got into the appliance business – by thinking out-of-the box!