It has been fashionable for some time to challenge people to “think outside the box.” So much so that people recognize it as a cliché, a development certainly long overdue. I would like to suggest, in modest fashion, that another expression be substituted, an acronym (from Douglas Hofstadter originally but more recently repeated by Daniel Dennett) “Joots.” Joots stands for “Jumping Out Of The System,” and as a candidate for the management consultant’s favorite meme, it has a few marked advantages over “the box.”
First of all, “the box,” while a convenient bogey man, is, in most cases, our friend. It represents the culture and power structure we live and work in. Living in the box is relaxing and reassuring, so much so that it becomes as invisible as the air we breathe. When pressed, we can all imagine something outside the box; anyone can do that simply by reversing some common assumptions: “Wait, I have an idea, let’s all sleep less.” The reason we don’t do that more often in our workplaces is that it is dangerous. In the workplace (with or without the presence of a consultant), it is downright uncomfortable, because the box defines both the usual and the possible. Going outside the box invites ridicule, and descent in the firm’s or institution’s estimation will almost inevitably follow. At best, tolerance may result, as in “Surely you don’t think we’ve not thought of that before?” At worst, you may be laughed out of the auditorium. “That’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.” (And you’re not supposed to ask why . . . .)
There’s the first advantage of Joots—it makes it clear it’s not a box, but a living, breathing system at work. It’s a complex of ideas and limitations, history, personalities and power structures, evolved over time, familiar, tried and true. Those who work within the system are respected—and safe. Going outside it is a challenging endeavor, to say the least.
“Jumping” is another suggestive change from merely “going.” It takes a leap of faith to go out of the system, and it requires the whole body’s cooperation. Jumping also suggests levitation, which may get you out of the line of fire. Merely thinking outside the box is not dangerous until you speak your thought. But when you do, hold on. You’re probably seated, so the fire can be easily concentrated in your direction. At least when you’re jumping, you have some advantage of surprise—some momentum, also, to hit the ground running and make a splash. “Jumping” invites both energy and due consideration, the looking before leaping that might result in an Olympic judges’ awarding of 9’s. And if the guardians of the power structure, the institutional traditions, the corporate culture come after you, you might keep jumping until you land in another location, another firm, a more forward thinking venue.
In fact, a successful Joots requires a lot of thinking, and even more difficult, some “running it up the flagpole to see who salutes” kind of research, to make sure the jump will have at least a few supporters in the audience, and embarrassment will be avoided. That’s why it’s so hard to get people to either think outside the box or joots on the spur of the moment. A wise person will remain silent, or search desperately for something inoffensive to say.
In my opinion, “jootsing” is best practiced not in a group, but rather one on one, consultant and employee, which is where the outsider identity of the consultant comes to the fore. While the average employee will be at least somewhat wary of the outsider, his struggle with the danger of jootsing can at least be balanced by the temptation to explain how wrongheaded the local system is. Only in the privacy of that one on one can jootsing really come to the fore, and helping the institution or firm jump a little higher itself.