Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Out of the Box

Most people have run into the phrase thinking outside the box a time or two in their adult lives, usually in business situations where business as usual has failed to produce the desired effect. While I am an advocate for a more creative approach to problem solving, sometimes it feels like this has become less of a driven philosophy to seek out new and innovative ideas and more of a ploy to avoid rewarding hard work. Those who keep things running are rarely recognized, while those who come up with new shiny objects are rewarded whether or not those solutions have any grounding in reality.

This is never truer than when a company is in transition to a new system (computer or process). During the transition, who are the most important players? Those designing, implementing and training users on the new system or those working with outdated equipment and little to no support to keep product rolling out the door so the business doesn't collapse while making its leap into the future? For me, they both have critical roles to play and therefore equal importance, as do the users who provide crucial information and feedback to ensure the new system achieves even a portion of its goals.

However, most reward structures ignore those holding the business afloat and rarely recognize the users' contribution either. Once again, the business engine focuses on the bright future with little interest in the monotony of the present. Does the phrase been there, done that ring a bell?

So, the lesson learned in this experience is if we want our children to succeed, we must pass to them this elusive ability, opening up a life of rewarded innovation. Sounds easy, right? Teaching innovation and making your children stand out as models for all others to follow. How hard can it be?

Take a look around the world and see what kids are doing? Few bother to create their own worlds for fantasy play. Instead, they reenact scenarios from the latest video games, television shows, or if we're lucky, books they've read. Schools are forced to teach to the test to ensure their doors are kept open, training the students in bubbling and selecting between multiple choices rather than actual problem solving. Add that to subjective essay evaluation as part of the testing process and teachers throw up their hands, finding the last element of creativity crushed out of a grading system that has lost its context of learning. This does not seem like an environment to foster innovative thinking while efforts outside the school system are crushed by peer forces: bullying and exclusion make fools of those who try to step beyond the cookie cutter design.

But wait, before despair takes hold and the outlook becomes grim, let me tell you a story about my youngest son.

Gales of laughter drew me away from my work one afternoon, the sound too enticing for me not to investigate. I found my 10-year-old at the computer, playing yet another strategy game that teaches players, through a series of guided training scenarios, what strategies are effective and how to best employ the various pieces. While on the surface, this type of game may appear to teach critical thinking, it provides such a fixed set in which to enact constructed battles that the opportunities for innovation are limited. Often, if the player fails to make a required move, the scenario becomes unbeatable. Similar to chess, each piece has a role and particular movements. A player wins by thinking faster and farther into the future.

In chess, a player cannot innovate by declaring the queen can now turn corners. Everyone has to stay within the bindings of tradition. This rule system carries over into the design of strategy games. Every piece has a part to play and if you can figure out that part faster than the other player, you win.

So what caused the hilarity? Where had he found humor in this simple game where both players build up their forces then try to eliminate each other with a combination of tactics and numbers? He broke the rules. He made his queen turn a corner. This 10-year-old refused to accept the basic understandings. He thought outside of the box, even when the box penned him in on every side. Instead of building a foundation for military development with his initial peasant characters, he reenacted the American Civil War. His farmers and builders and miners took up their hammers, pickaxes and hoes, but did not start to mine, build and farm. Instead, they crept across the board and destroyed the other player's infrastructure and peasants, preventing the war from ever starting.

The laughter came as he watched supposedly ineffectual peasants slowly demolish a complete town, cutting off ability after ability until the computer player could do nothing but sit and be destroyed. Would this strategy have worked against a human player? Maybe, maybe not, but the cookie cutter world kids are offered failed to contain one 10-year-old and so maybe it will fail to contain others.

Though we might not be able to teach our children how to innovate, we can show them in our own refusal to "be like everyone else," and reward it when they show the same, whether with our laughter, hugs, or privileges. At the same time, remember who brought my son his victory. The peasants. Maybe our children will have a better understanding of the values in both those who maintain and those who innovate. For me, it is enough to hope.


Valerie Comer said...

WooHoo! A resounding round of applause for the munchkin. It does take *thinking outside the box* to a new dimension. May his mind always be prepared for the innovative side trips.


Anonymous said...

Knowing his father and mother, it is no surprise that he has learned to manipulate his reality on a computer. What delights me is that his reaction is delight to overcoming the restraints, rather than delight at killing another tele-character.

Voter Mom said...

That's a great post.
Random thoughts:
- What I wish I had learned as a child is the value of perseverance and hard work
-- The other day I was just thinking about how computer games might be designed to teach academic subjects (history, frex) in a way that really captuers teh imagination. Not being a gamer myself, I didn't pursue teh thought further ...


Margaret said...

Here here, alyn. I'm trying to give that to my boys, but the trouble is that to value hard work you have to see a viable reward and all they want to do is play on their computer.

About the computer games, they have a bunch of them actually. The Carmen SanDiego series was a good one, but my guys got bored with it after a while. What I think they need to do is put up a sample site like for those types of games, a try before you buy. If the game pulls my kids in and teaches them something at the same time, I'd go for it :). Right now, the best they get is strategy games, but all the killing in them gets to me.