Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the Water — Better Box Thinking: Guest Post by Jerry Weissman

Friday, September 16, 2011
posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 0:16 AM IST



The aphorism, “Don’t raise the bridge, lower the water,” has applications from the soaring heights of architectural design to the quotidian task of presentation graphics; the common denominator in both being the importance of thinking outside the box.

In a paper (links to a PDF) called “Thinking More Effectively about Deliberate Innovation,” Christopher M. Barlow, PhD, a member of The Co-Creativity Institute, said that the familiar phrase “forced me to a new perspective: creativity is not a change in the problem, it is a change in us, a change in our thinking that makes the already possible solutions obvious.”

Mr. Barlow identified the problem in the aphorism as how to “get the boats past the bridge,” and then went on to say, “If I ask you to design a lift bridge, and you begin describing the building of a dam and lock to lower the water level, I have to wonder about your sanity or intelligence…When some of the alternatives [are] made obvious by the new viewpoint are better than the best of the old ideas, we call it creativity.” He summarized the creative process as “Not out of the box thinking, better box thinking!”

An example of better box thinking in the usually boxy world of architecture comes from the recently opened International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong, a 108-story, 1,588-foot building that is now the fourth-tallest tower in the world.

Because tall buildings tend to sway in the wind, architects—like Paul Katz of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates who designed the ICC—seek innovative ways to mitigate the risk.

According to the Wall Street Journal story about the tower:

Most skyscrapers utilize pendulums or dampers, designed to transfer the motion of the building to mitigation devices. These can be enormous. Taipei 101, the world’s second-tallest building, sports a massive 660-ton steel ball, suspended from the 92nd floor that swings in full view of visitors…Mr. Katz designed the entire ICC to provide wind buffers. Instead of meeting in corners, the sides join in recessed notches. Its scaled surface—which gives the building a dragon appearance beloved by Chinese—also breaks up wind force. “It’s like the opposite of an aircraft’s wing,” Mr. Katz explains. “It breaks up lift.”

For presenters—who usually think within the strict confines of outbound corporate marketing boxes—better box thinking involves consideration of the audience. In most of today’s unilateral and overloaded business presentations, thinking about the audience all too often goes missing in action.

A client of mine, let’s call him Jason, who is a marketing manager for a Silicon Valley telecommunications company, was assigned to develop his company’s slide show for a new product launch. One of the slides Jason created was a network diagram in which all the labels were crammed into small boxes (pun may or may not be intended), each box containing two- and three-line captions. Readers of Presenting to Win will recall that wordwrap makes it harder for the audience to read than one-liners. When I suggested that Jason trim the labels to one-liners, he asked, “Should I make the text smaller or the boxes larger?”

I replied, “Don’t raise the bridge, lower the water!”

Jason smiled in recognition that it was more important to make the slide easy for the audience to read than for him to create.

That’s better box thinking.

Picture used in this post from BigStockJerry WeissmanJerry Weissman is among the world’s foremost corporate presentations coaches. His private client list reads like a who’s who of the world’s best companies, including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Netflix and many others.Jerry founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988. One of his earliest efforts was the Cisco Systems IPO road show. Following its successful launch, Don Valentine, of Sequoia Capital, and then chairman of Cisco’s Board of Directors, attributed “at least two to three dollars” of the offering price to Jerry’s coaching. That endorsement led to more than 500 other IPO road show presentations that have raised hundreds of billions of dollars in the stock market. Jerry also blogs at Harvard Business Review and Forbes.com

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