Thinking inside the box

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Crawford
  • 21st Space Wing commander
I learned this lesson the hard way, but fortunately I also learned it early. It's still one of the most important military lessons I've ever picked up, and it's a surprisingly simple little mantra: Do what the boss asks. That's it. If your boss asks for something specific, they generally have a very good reason. A good follower, and a good leader, will move forward and execute the task. They will certainly be smart about it, and they will have to use many of their leadership tools, but they will get what the boss wants done.

As an Air Force, we do an excellent job (as we should) of encouraging independent thought and creativity, and of asking our personnel to apply critical analysis. We also encourage thinking outside the box to find solutions. There is nothing wrong with that. A critical skill, though, is the ability to work within the given constraints, taking what you're given, and get the job done. Often this "inside the box" thinking is exactly what's needed to do what the boss asks.

The first step to inside the box thinking - to solving a problem within a set of constraints - is to clarify those boundaries. If what the boss wants sounds fishy, overly complex, unnecessary, or if you are just unsure exactly what they are looking for, then ask. Ask the boss for clarification on their intent, take some notes, and get moving. If asked, most leaders will be willing (if not even happy) to provide further fidelity on their tasks and relevant background information. Most bosses will also entitle you to a "but Sir" if you disagree with the intent, but use these wisely and be prepared to carry out the bosses direction anyway (unless, of course, it's immoral, unethical, illegal, etc.).

Once you know the bosses intent, it still may not be easy to get the job done. The first problem you'll run into is people who tell you why it can't be done, that it didn't work before, that it requires too much work, or that we cannot effect change at our level. That's where your skill as a leader comes into play. You need to be able to translate and repackage the boss' intent, explain what needs to be done, and lead other Airmen through the "why" and the "how."

When you lead your Airmen through the "why," don't ever blame the boss. The boss has enough problems without you pointing back over your shoulder and saying "it's their fault." Take ownership and responsibility for your assigned project.

A pure outside the box thinker might look at a problem and come up with tools they wish they had to solve it. Those who can also think inside the box will look at the existing constraints and find a way through it, using available tools, to the boss' goal. To address some of the common kickbacks noted above: Ask naysayers why it can't be done and, even better, why it didn't work before. There may be good "lessons learned" there - and if nothing else you'll learn what obstacles lie in your path. Just about any project worth doing requires "too much" work, or else it probably would have been knocked out already. Don't be afraid to ruffle a few feathers (within reason and with discretion), and be sure to sidestep the "this is too big to fix" trap. Fix what you can at your level, and sometimes you'll be amazed at what momentum will gather.

While executing the boss' task, you need to become an expert. How can you do the job correctly, or be able to answer questions, if you don't invest the time to fully learn the material? Many people fall into the trap of "move, move, move" and never take time to really learn what they're supposed to be leading as they do it. Of course, this needs to be balanced against the opposite tendency - to over analyze a problem and never act.

Being an expert enables another key step in execution. Once underway, you'll need to be able to anticipate the boss' needs. Obviously, you can't ask the boss about everything. If you have a clear sight picture on the boss' intent, though, and know your subject, you'll be able to get out in front of potential hurdles and (for lack of a better word) hurdle them as they come up.

Sometimes doing exactly what the boss asks is easy. Sometimes it's not - sometimes you'll run into all the hurdles mentioned above. Here's something worth considering: the boss knows. They know what they're asking is difficult and, truth be told, they may know exactly how to get it done quickly. They've probably been in your position before. Their goal may be to both get the job done and, as a bonus, groom a future leader along the way. American businessman Charles Erwin Wilson put it very eloquently when he said, "A good boss makes his men realize they have more ability than they think they have so that they consistently do better work than they thought they could."

Being creative has its place, and so does coming up with a better idea and new approaches (see the wing's stance on innovation). There are also a lot of situations, though, where bosses ask for exactly what they want. Be prepared to get that intent, think inside the box, and lead your team to success in those instances. You'll be impressed with what you're able to accomplish.