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Thinking "outside the box" or (as it is sometimes known) "coloring outside the lines" is a popular idea in the business world today.

People and organizations are told to think outside the box or color outside the lines as a way to stimulate creativity when they need to solve problems like streamlining production, establishing a new product, or developing a new process.

And it's true that creativity and innovation often arise from unexpected and unconventional thinking.

But There's a Problem

There is a serious problem with trying to apply such thinking too broadly.

For instance, creativity is valued in art and advertising, but not in banking and accounting.

An accounting firm recently ran an ad suggesting that it could think "outside the box." Do you really want your business to be associated with creative accounting? Aren't accountants supposed to put the numbers in the right box? Wasn't creative accounting a serious problem for Enron?

In reality, clear thinking and the creativity that it produces are rarely a matter of thinking outside the box. And coloring outside the lines is for the most part just sloppy workmanship.

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Phillip A. Ross

Mr. Ross is the owner of Business Specialties, a Marietta, Ohio, promotional products and services company. Phil can be contacted at phil@business-specialties.com.