Thinking outside the box

One of my first jobs at a school was to type in all the electrical information needed to do an audit.  The information was  on a printout so I asked why they hadn’t just exported the information to excel.  No one knew how to do it.  They were going to pay me for 2 weeks to sit there, type and check the information because no one knew of an easier way to get it into the format required by regulations.

I offered instead to read the manual and learn if there was a way to export the information.  There was and it wasn’t hard to learn how to do it.   What would have given me work for at least 2 weeks took me about 6 hours – 3 hours working out how to do it from scratch and 3 hours formatting it to be a readable document.  The interesting thing was to export the information itself took about 15 minutes.  It was exactly what they needed and it was completed in six hours, not two weeks.

What does this have to do with Thinking Outside the Box?

I could have kept quiet and just sat there for two weeks typing in large strings of numbers and checking them.  The amount of work involved meant I could have probably spun it into more then three or four weeks.  I couldn’t do that for a number of reasons:

  1. I would have been bored out of my mind with that sort of repetitive work and with the constant checking.  The information was strings of numbers and letters eg computer power cord xx343328ggkslffrer3e8 1139k83y4345.  Each one needed to be checked before you typed the next.
  2. I have to think of ways to do things easier/quicker/faster in every task, it’s the way I am.
  3. I’m a tax payer and the idea of paying someone (even myself) to waste time doing something a computer could do quicker, easier and with more accuracy was not something I could do.
  4. If I learnt how to do this and could teach others, it would save time and money in the future.

You might think I was an idiot for missing out on 2 weeks work by doing it in 6 hours.  I didn’t miss out on work.  The school kept me during those two weeks doing other tasks and I ended up working there for a number of years, including training other office staff in how to use the export system.  Thinking outside the box, showing my skills and abilities and demonstrating my intitiave gave me more work, not less.

What can we learn from thinking outside the box?

There is no one true way of doing anything.  When you have a task to do, take time to think about what you want to accomplish and what’s the quickest, cheapest, simplest way to get it done.  Sometimes the simplest way is the most basic way – write it on a piece of paper.   Sometimes the quickest way is not to start doing it but to stop and spend some time thinking “Can this be done any other way?”  Once you have worked out another way of doing it, will that way ultimately save you time or money and if the answer is yes, do it.

Thinking Outside the Box is not a hard concept but it means you do have to take some time to think.  Too often we just do and end up wasting time and money.

Image: luigi diamanti /