Breaking Out of the Box: Meaning and Means

Gerald Zaltman, Harvard University
[ to cite ]:
Gerald Zaltman (1997) ,"Breaking Out of the Box: Meaning and Means", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 12-14.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 12-14


Gerald Zaltman, Harvard University


As a field like ours matures, there is increased specialization. As a consequence, the field as a whole becomes more eclectic and richer while the viewpoints of individual researchers become more bounded. This paradox is compounded by exciting developments in the social and biological sciences and in the humanities, which themselves are increasingly fragmented. But, when these developments are considered they can broaden widely a researcher’s perspective.

The fragmentation and narrowing of perspective produced by specialization would not be a problem except for two things. First, the consumer world isn’t organized along disciplinary and subdisciplinary lines. People’s lives don’t follow the social organization of research. Second, the frontiers of knowledge are found disproportionately at the boundaries or intersections between fields rather than at the respective centers. If increased specialization causes us to look inward, it also creates great learning opportunities to look outward; we benefit from specialties that might intersect with our own, even if not in obvious ways.

One way to enjoy the upside of specialization (deeper insight) and limit its downside (overly narrow focus) is to develop switching rules. These are rules that enable us, on an ad hoc basis, to temporarily alter our frames of reference, to cross boundaries. Put differently, we need periodic sojourns to foreign intellectual lands. However, to change (and mix) metaphors, this does not mean licking the frosting on someone else’s cake; it requires sufficient indentured servitude to see how the entire cake is baked. One needs to look deeply no matter where understanding is sought.

In the time available, I’d like to do two things. First, I’d like to comment briefly on the expression, "breaking out-of-the-box." Second, I’d like to reflect on commonalities among some rules-of-thumb for breaking out-of-the-box. These commonalities provide design criteria for developing ways of expanding our thinking.

Stressing individual rules-of-thumb is approprate to the conference organizers’ desire to use this plenary session as a launching pad for the sessions to follow. However, I would like to note that as important as individual rules-of-thumb are cultural forces have an even greater impact on individual creativity. These forces operate at the level of society, the discipline, and in our immediate places of work.


Metaphors are powerful because they simultaneously reveal and hide ideas. The breaking out-of-the-box metaphor highlights a need to escape the prison-like confines of customary thinking but hides the nature of the force required for a jailbreak. It conveys the freedom and refreshment of escape but hides the fact that breaking out of one box entails breaking into another. It even implies a limited number of directions in which to go. For me, breaking out-of-the-box brings forth the sharp sound and bright light of public commitment, followed by a torn and uninviting surface. Both make reentry unpleasant. This image hides the fact that our customary boxes generally serve us well: even when we "break out," we generally return. Recidivism isn’t entirely bad. In my judgment, the problem is not in returning, but in the failure to leave frequently enough and long enough to collect worthwhile ideas for redecorating our primary lodging.


There are many guidelines for breaking out-of-the-box that appear to work well. I don’t claim to practice many of them. It would drive me crazy. Also, it’s a bit like typing. The skill works best when used tacitly. Once you start thinking about it, you start making errors and slow down. More importantly, thinking is a highly personal process. Thinking about thinking is even more so. Telling people how to think is even more of an affront than telling them what to think. It is unlikely that what works (sometimes) for me or someone else would work for you. However, there do seem to be some common, underlying reasons why various rules-of-thumb seem to work. Our task is to use these reasons as design criteria when developing our personal rules-of-thumb for thinking differently.

As a way of surfacing some design criteria, I will share a few guidelines I find helpful. Again, what is of interest are the processes they activate, not the guidelines themselves. So, as you listen, focus on what the underlying dynamic might be and how you do or could integrate it into your unique system of thought.

A preview of some of the implied design criteria as I "hear" them may be helpful. First, capitalize on what makes you restless. Second, develop an eye for and appreciation of the irregular. Third, be stubborn, but also be honest with others and above all with yourself. Fourth, develop wide cognitive peripheral vision. Fifth, be mischievous. Direct mischief mostly at yourself. Finally, follow your own counsel. If you are going to get in trouble, you might as well have the satisfaction of being the primary cause.

Commit a Crime: View Conclusions as Commencements.

It may have been Roger Schank who described researchers as detectives solving crimes. What are the crimes they solve? Tough research questions. But someone has to commit the crimeCcreate the mischiefCwhich may be difficult for detectives to do. Yet research findingsCsolved crimes Care great starting points for formulating new questions. Embedded in every conclusion is a commencement. Some simple questions to ask are, "What would I need to know that would make me uncomfortable with a conclusion (finding, etc.)?" "Do I know that this isn't so?" "What question would cause the most mischief with these results?" "What are the data mum or silent about?"

Get Out-of-Date.

Children automatically practice an important rule: "If it ain’t broke, break it." This is consistent with my behavior as a child, my children’s behavior, and the behavior of children visiting our home. I am convinced there is a gene for this. However, tremendous socialization processes eventually convert that rule to, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

My compromise in the tug of war between biology and society has produced the following valuable question: "How can I make what I do or know now, no matter how adequate it seems, look outdated or old fashioned as soon as possible?" Just having the question in mind serves as a filter for tying all kinds of seemingly irrelevant reading to my current research in a way that forces me to look at that research differently. The question helps focus attention on going somewhere else rather than being content where you are now.

Commitment to a Process Rather than an Outcome.

It is important to maintain a stronger commitment to the process of developing good ideas than to the outcomes or ideas themselves. Ideas aren’t like diamondsCthey don’t last foreverCalthough a good one can last a long time. The real value added is not so much in wearing a diamond but in mining in the right place, having the motivation to dig, recognizing an uncut diamond, and skillfully cutting it. I think a greater commitment to mining than to wearing good ideas keeps us from the trap of being enamored with our own thoughts and having someone else make us look out-of-date.

Cool Passion

One needs cool passion. Passion is necessary to fuel thinking, cool is required to harness the energy. Thinking must be acknowledged as the product of emotion and reason. Reliance on either alone is only half right and hence also half wrong. Reason and emotion need to co-mingle without censuring. One acquires new insights by allowing them to bump into one another and then adjudicating the conflict, if there is one.

The Courage of Your Convictions

When I was a graduate student seeking a faculty position where I could roam across fields comfortably, Everett Rogers offered me the following caution: if you plan to bridge fields, expect to be walked on. Breaking out-of-the-box is not for the faint of heart. You need to be willing to stand alone or, again switching metaphors, to be willing to wade into the mainstream before others even know where the mainstream is. This requires particularly careful preparation for one’s position since it will be examined more closely than normal, as should be the case, by people in the domains being bridged. They don’t like people just licking the frosting off their cake.

Think Generically.

It is important to formulate the generic question in any research effort. Put differently, why would someone in a different discipline or concerned with a different audience want to read my research results? The value of identifying the generic issue is twofold. First, it identifies literatures one may have missed that may contain usefu ideas. For example, if I am interested in computer mediated communication as a marketing tool, I am also exploring the generic issue of how a sense of community and association is created, maintained, and lost. For this reason the literatures on community development and volunteerism, for example, might be very helpful. Second, identifying the generic issue helps broaden applications within marketing.

Wonder about the Crumpled Horn.

Remember the cow with the crumpled horn (that tossed the dog, that worried the cat, that ate the rat, and so on, in This is the House that Jack Built)? Weren’t you curious about, "Who crumpled the cow’s horn?" "Why did they do it?" "How did it happen?" "Has the cow discovered it yet?" And I must admit to wondering, "How would I crumple a cow’s horn?" The basic rule-of-thumb here is, what irregularity might I create that would add life to an issue? Remember that we are wired to think causally when we perceive irregularities: we see something unexpected (asymmetric) and wonder what caused it. A crushed can or a crumpled horn, for instance, engages our attention more than an undamaged one standing next to it. The crushed can or horn is more interesting: it has a past.

Remove the Shin Guards On Your Research.

I get physically fidgety when people present research in which they have not allowed for surprises. They know what the results will be well in advance of their data collection and these certainly don’t include crumpled horns. The research process was too careful and protective. When I ask why a particular result wouldn’t be obtained I usually receive a puzzled look. Their research is wearing shin guards. This lessens the likelihood of having conclusions which contain interesting commencements.

Avoid Premature Dismissal.

One cause of narrow cognitive peripheral vision is the tendency to dismiss ideas without first asking about the importance of their consequences if they were true. That is, we should ask first, "Would there be significant consequences if this idea or theory had substantial support?" If the answer is yes, then it pays to proceed and assess its conceptual and/or technical validity. I think we assess validity differently (maybe more leniently) when we think something is of greater rather than lesser consequence. We tend to too easily dismiss ideas because they don’t appear on the surface or on initial inspection to have validity or merit. Hence, we never get to assess their utility. When I read something speculative in neuroscience, for instance, I find I understand it better and appreciate it more if I begin by saying, "Let’s suppose this was correct, what does it imply or say about surfacing mental models or designing advertising?" Pragmatic validity becomes a useful truth test to help avoid premature dismissal.


What do rules-of-thumb such as these have in common? What are the implied design criteria that might help you create rules-of-thumb more compatible with your own habits of mind? Some criteria will be suggested by describing certain design questions. First, there is a kind of restlessness implied, especially in rying to make your own work out-of-date as soon as possible or in viewing conclusions as commencements. The design question to answer is: what makes you restless? Whatever that is, maintain a big dose of it.

Wondering about the crumpled horn, being as committed to the research process as you are to an outcome, taking the shin guards off, and getting out-of-date share an appreciation of the irregular; a welcoming attitude toward the unexpected. The design question here is: "How do I increase the chances of encountering anomalies and improve my skills in detecting them?" Relatedly, "How do I create anomalies?"

The matters of cool passion, being committed to the process of generating quality ideas more than to the ideas themselves and maintaining the courage of your convictions, share the notion of reasoned but visceral stubbornness. When you think and feel you are right, be stubborn and strong enough to support those who are walking on you. Stubbornness is made easier by having deep knowledge of the fields you are bridging, i.e., by demonstrating that you know how their respective cakes are baked and by seeing convergence on an idea from different fields. The design question to be answered here is: "What 'foreign’ fields are most fun and most important to visit?" Whatever these are, go often and stay a while.

Thinking generically and avoiding premature dismissal also helps you get out-of-date and perceive the new questions in your findings. This brings the quality of wide cognitive peripheral vision to your research. This, in turn, requires curiosity about crumpled horns and an inclination to cause one or two. The design questions to answer here are: "What makes you curious and nosy to the point of being mischievous?" "What tempts you to break things that appear fixed?"


In all of this you need honesty with yourself. You’ve got to be as able and willing to say you are wrong as you are that you are right and to do so publicly as well as privately. You’ve also got to honor someone else’s ideas no matter how ordinary they may seem. There is always a good chance that you just don’t know enough to see the crumpled horn or the courage in their work.