jen-in-the-box (repost)

In his book Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, Jeremy Butterfield lists ten of the most irritating phrases in English, including “it’s not rocket science,” “with all due respect,” “fairly certain,” “I personally,” and “shouldn’t of.” (It’s shouldn’t have, folks, as in “I shouldn’t have slept through so many English classes.”)

I’d add another to his list: “out of the box.” The phrase isn’t just a cliche; I think it’s also become counterproductive.

All creative endeavors require boundaries—rules, even. In addition to correct grammar (shouldn’t have), effective writing requires various elements: paragraphs have topic sentences, sentences have nouns and verbs, and an English sonnet is always fourteen lines of ten syllables each. Music, whether it’s Beethoven or Beyonce, involves time signatures, rhythms, musical keys with specific sharps and flats, and much more. (So much more that I had to get a tutor to pass music theory in college.) Painting, photography, filmmaking—every creative enterprise is grounded in certain parameters.

Research backs me up; if you’ve read Made to Stick, you may recall the Israeli research team that asked three groups of novices to brainstorm ad campaigns. One group received no training, one participated in a two-hour free-association class, and one was trained for two hours on templates the research team had already identified as central to 90% of award-winning ads. Then each of the groups submitted their ideas to an independent creative director who had no knowledge of each group’s training.

Who created the best ads—the team without any boundaries, the team with two hours of encouragement to think outside those boundaries, or the team with instruction in six boundaries? You guessed it—the CD rated the third group’s ads 50% more creative. A few carefully-chosen boxes produced the most out-of-the-box results.

This means if you are leading a worship arts team planning Christmas services, the least helpful thing you can do is convene a brainstorming meeting and ask your team to think “out of the box” with “no bad ideas” and a “blue-sky” approach to a “blank page.”

For one thing, even as you urge this you already have an idea, however vague, of what you want Christmas at your church to look and feel like. You might even be one of the lucky few whose senior minister decides what he’s going to preach on before December 21. So if the two of you are thinking about a retro “Peanuts” Christmas feel with a straightforward gospel message, why waste 45 minutes of everyone’s time sharing ideas about how other cultures depict the incarnation? Thirty minutes of discussion about favorite Christmas movies is fun, but only helpful if it’s on theme. And if you know the service will have an acoustic vibe, why burn brain cells figuring out where to rent a harp?

In other words, establish the box to channel creativity productively, not to stifle it. Of course, if you don’t know what key idea you’re going for, you’ve got bigger issues—figure that out alone or with a smaller group, then bring it to your team for brainstorming. With all due respect, I personally am fairly certain that’s the way to go, because it’s not……well, you know.

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