Fresh ideas can come from the wealth of experience we carry within us.

I HAVE a problem with thinking outside the box, especially with people who use the phrase lightly.

We hear it all the time these days, but so often the people who say it don't stick around to explain what this box represents, so nothing changes.

"Think outside the box" sounds like a positive statement, and people feel as though they are motivating their colleagues by encouraging such behaviour.

But in fact what people often hear is: "You are incredibly conservative and unproductive, and I'm frustrated with you."

What the "box" represents

Using the phrase "think outside the box" may not be the best way to change matters.

Why? Because the box that has been built around our thoughts is our education, our upbringing and, to a certain extent, the wiring of our nervous systems.

So when I'm told to think outside the box, it feels like I'm being told to question my past, disrespect my parents and give up on the me I know and am comfortable with.

I have occasionally done some of these things, and have benefited from all of it. But I probably wouldn't have if I had a boss telling me to do it all the time. I would have changed jobs, or at least developed my passive aggression.

I ran an improvisation workshop for a large music company once. The boss said to me at the beginning of the day: "I ask for a bit of creativity, and then I see what they give me, and I tell them, 'This isn't creative! Give me something creative!'"

He expected me to sympathise with him, so he was in for a surprise when I chose instead to question his approach and explain why his staff resented him.

One of the reasons improvisation exercises are so helpful in the pursuit of creative thinking is that no one ever, ever talks about "the box".

Developing any type of communication on the spot requires a person to dig deeper into himself for relevant material rather than looking for answers outside.

Get a "sack" instead

Instead of the box, I prefer the image of a great big "sack", like the one Santa Claus carries. I tell people to imagine that this sack is always with them, filled with everything they've ever seen, felt, heard, read, tasted, loved, hated, hoped for, investigated, recoiled from or flung themselves at. It contains everything they have to offer.

If the perception is that there isn't enough in their sack, then, the answer is not to encourage them to think outside it, but first to learn to trust its value and also to put more into it: more movies, more art, more travel, more books, more animals, more people, more conversations that dare to venture into the most obscure corners of the heart.

For the manager, it seems to me that the opportunities for developing staff creativity exist above all in two areas.

The first is in attitude. If there is anything you can do to make your staff feel safe offering you their ideas, do it. Try smiling when they walk into your office, for a start.

Tell them you are interested in their sack of toys. If they don't pick the right toy for you right off the bat, encourage further digging. If you tell them you know it's in there, they are much more likely to find it.

Secondly, look around at the office. Is there anything of interest to look at? Some people who study creativity believe that it is actually impossible to change the way people think from the inside, and that environment is the number one key to creative thinking.

Give your staff something to look at, something to stimulate their brains, something to put in the sack. The box concept will slowly break down and go the way of all cardboard. Good riddance.