Thinking Outside of the Tool Box

I thought it would be interesting this month to talk about something that can improve both your productivity and quality of work. This topic is often discussed in business management circles but is rarely presented to the front-line technical community. What I am referring to is the art of creative thinking, often referred to as “Thinking Outside of the Box (TOB).” This is a valuable skill that all technical people should have in their toolbox. Contrary to what you may think, you can practice and get better at TOB over time. Later in this article I will give you one of my security tech examples of TOB.

Having worked in the consulting arena for many years, I find myself constantly under pressure to come up with new ideas. Those of you who have been reading “Tech Talk” through the years know I really like new ideas. I especially enjoy sharing them with you, my valuable readers. This month, I hope to give you some ideas on how you too can come up with new and exciting ideas. Who knows, you may even want to share some ideas with your fellow “Tech Talk” readers. Drop me an E-mail if you would want to do this.

Many Groups Are Still in the Box Before we get into the good stuff, let’s take a look at how many organizations and individuals approach poorly their everyday problems and challenges. Technical people are faced with challenging problems every day, and through the years have established a set of technical skills and parameters that help us work through problems called the “box.” This process is known as “Thinking Inside the Box (TIB).”

When troubleshooting, this technique will work for us most of the time, however there are times when we need to rise above the moment and look for a new direction or idea to help us solve a problem or create a new opportunity. Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Thinking inside the box means accepting the status quo. New ideas are too risky. Sometimes we are too close to our work or specialty to notice new approaches and ideas. Management may discourage new ideas. In-the-box thinkers often steal the energy and enthusiasm being generated by out-of-the-box thinkers and lower worker morale. It is human nature to stay within the norm as it is easier to do and not as risky.

Learn to Think Outside the Box “Out-of-the-box” thinking refers to looking at things from a fresh perspective. It requires openness to new ways of seeing the world and a willingness to explore. Some suggestions toward TOB include not being constrained by the apparent parameters; looking at problems from a different perspective; and not immediately accepting obvious answers.

OK, how do we get the ball rolling and get our minds to better understand TOB? One good way is with some popular TOB brainteasers. In this article, we have two popular puzzles. Remember, you must think outside of the box! You will have to fight the impulse for your mind to take the traditional TIB route. When you find yourself doing this, think in a new and different direction. Don’t look at the solutions right away. You will benefit more from this exercise after you have wracked your brain a bit on finding a solution. Remember the old adage: no pain, no gain. (see “Puzzles To Make You ‘Think Out of the Box’” and the solutions below.)

The first exercise is the famous nine-dot exercise. In this puzzle you must connect all nine dots, using only four straight lines, without lifting your pencil from the surface of the paper, and without drawing over any of the lines you already have. Lines may cross, however. The next TOB puzzle you will see “IX.” You must turn this into another number by adding only one line.

I hope your boss will read this article as well. If not, you might want to anonymously leave a copy on his or her desk. I personally know that one of the most frustrating things is trying to practice creative thinking and have those around you, especially management, maintain a suffocating TIB attitude.

From a management perspective, the only downside of the TOB approach to technical problems is that new ideas and applications are often unproven and can create an extra business liability and expense.

Also, always keep in mind my comments from the past on the cautions of “jury-rigging.” In security we often apply technology to life-safety applications so we must be sure not to create increased liability with an assumed new and great idea. With that said, good and fresh new ideas should still be explored and encouraged by business management. They should see how to safely implement new ideas with the expectation of increasing overall profitability and employee/customer morale.

This goes for manufacturers as well. Remember, many of the really great products in our industry came from an outside-of-the-box thinker. If you come across what you think might be a great idea for a security application in your daily work, don’t toss it away. Write it down and explore it personally or discuss it with your boss or a manufacturer. If it is a really good idea, then you might want to make sure to consult a lawyer before disclosing it. At the least, get your initial disclosure correspondence witnessed and in writing. Above all, don’t let that good idea just die on the vine.

A TOB Security Application Idea
Many of us have run across the problem of providing electronic security to customers who want to protect property in remote areas where the temperature often falls to many degrees below zero for extended periods of time. These applications do not often have reliable electrical power available. You could use battery power, but batteries have a difficult time providing power for extended periods of time at sub-zero temperatures. Many electronic circuitries will not work at below freezing.

If we look inside the box at this problem, we have a few not-so-great choices. Most of the time, we will tell the customer, “Sorry, we cannot do it.” We may look at a solar-powered application but would need a panel large enough to keep a heating element active for proper equipment and battery operation.

Let’s take a moment and look at this problem from a TOB viewpoint. An above-freezing environment for equipment is available and is less than 10 feet away. It is under our feet. By designing a sealed PVC shaft and placing the security equipment and batteries (see diagram on page 28 of October 2004 edition of SSI) well below the frost line, you will be able to operate in the coldest winters.

Remote, cold weather-tolerant sensor devices, a photovoltaic (PV) solar collector and monitoring radio antenna can be securely located at the top and above ground. Be careful to seal the tubing, as the hole may fill up with water. Additionally, design to compensate for condensation on the inside of the tubing getting on electronic equipment. Plan for a rigging that would allow equipment and battery to be pulled up for maintenance.

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