The Box


I have recently contributed articles on the Future of Work and the Future of Education to BIZCATALYST360, and another on the Future of Warfare (not that title) to another organization. I will also be contributing one on the Future of Healthcare soon.  I have been struck by the similarity of problems and challenges emerging in all those areas. If we work through them, learn and change, we could see a real Renaissance. If we ignore them or do nothing, we may see some Dark Ages. These problems and challenges are created by people – our leaders, customers, workers, educators and more – who seem locked into their old boxes.

So what are these boxes? There are quite a number of them. They may be physical – office space, buildings; psychological, emotional fears, worries, hates, relationships; mental, intellectual, lessons from the past, beliefs, traditions, ways we were taught…   Mostly, they are our own mindsets and belief systems that have grown and solidified over time.   What can we do to get out of our boxes?

Illustration and Questions

Perhaps one of the most insidious boxes has been that imposed by science through the scientific method – a method that required positivism, objectivism, and reductionism. These requirements prevented exploration of phenomena that could not be restricted to these criteria, such as consciousness, intuition and the like. This perspective has relaxed over the years with research by people such as my old friend and colleague from SRI – Willis Harman – who wrote a seminal paper on the subject.[1] In the last 25 years or so, further scientific studies, including many in neuroscience and quantum physics have indicated that many of the things we thought were fixed, solid and determined, have proven themselves to be in motion, mostly empty space, and malleable and all able to be affected by the human mind. So the boxes are actually less fixed than we originally thought. However, since we generally don’t recognize that, we maintain our boxes in our mindsets. So here are some examples of what I mean…

In the recent paper that I wrote with a colleague, Kevin McCarty, we looked at the War on Terror. Why are we still fighting it 16 years on?   We have tried all kinds of tactical approaches and improvements in both hard and soft power, yet things just don’t turn out as we expect. Doing more and better of the same does not seem to get us any closer to achieving our goals. Many look for thinking “outside the box” to find solutions. What am I missing? Am I looking at this wrong? Is there a way to make better sense out of this? However, to get any value from such an approach, you must first know what “box” you are in to recognize what is outside of it. This is a key first step. Back in 1946, George Kennan had an answer for it that he used very effectively in designing the Marshall Plan. He wrote “…our participation in the two world wars of this century, had created not only in the minds of our soldiers and sailors but in the minds of many of our people an unspoken assumption that the normal objective of warfare was the total destruction of the enemy’s will to resist and his unconditional capitulation.” Kennan’s observation of “total war” describes the unspoken box that we are in today. It colors our view of the role of the military and its relation to policy. However, this “Box” works only when we have a centralized, controlling enemy that can surrender unconditionally.

But today we have a decentralized enemy that fights in a decentralized population, and that uses information operations and strategic communications as its main weapons, supported by kinetics. It means finding a way to persuade an audience to choose a behavior for its own reasons that also brings you a desired benefit. From the box that the Armed Forces are in, most people have not yet recognized this, and they do not understand how to fight this war. Or perhaps they have put themselves in a box through their capital investment in ships, aircraft and tanks, and an acquisition process that takes years.

Using this as an example, we can see how these boxes constrain us – we can’t be imaginative and creative locked in boxes of our own making.

The world of work has a number of similar, in-box constraints: It’s mostly hierarchical, you need to have certain qualifications to rise through the hierarchy, you need to obey the rules and guidelines, new ideas have to be vetted by people qualified in the business, it is still frequently a 9 ‘til 5, 5 day-per-week operation. Yet we are already seeing the new forms of industry and work being developed by Inner Directed groups – crowdsourcing, collaborative economy, working from home, home-based businesses, and innovative use of new technology – but there is still a lot of resistance.

If the leadership of organizations – business, and even government – were to ask themselves what boxes are we in? Do they serve us?   What might we do to break out of our boxes? Then we might find some amazing changes in not only the businesses and their successes, but in the whole economy. The world of business is so huge and so diverse that I can only touch on possibilities, but for leaders who want to succeed, it would be worthwhile to get their leadership teams together to ask if the boxes they are in are serving them.

The educational systems are definitely locked into old, industrial-era boxes.   They are all about “push.” Pushing educational courses decided upon and designed by people from previous generations (and even eras) into the heads of the students. The technology may have been added, and new subjects – IT, AI, neuroscience and the like added, but it’s still like driving using the rear-view mirror to navigate. What about getting out into the future with completely new subjects that are identified through demand-pull? Again, asking the questions about boxes would be a good way to start.

Where to Start?

People as individuals and organizations have the opportunity to identify their boxes and get out of them. Most people are completely unaware that they are living in boxes, and many organizations would deny it!   For both individuals, I would recommend working in groups so that you can brainstorm with each other.   For individuals, I would recommend that a small group (4-6) close friends get together. They need to be willing to speak openly and honestly with each other – even if it hurts.   For an organization, I would recommend a group of top 3 levels of leadership plus a few young mavericks. Individuals and organizations can go through the same steps. The following is not a comprehensive list of steps, but it’s a start.   But a word of caution.   Only take them if you really want to know the answers:

  • First, recognize that there is a box
  • Recognize that you’re in it (as an organization or an individual)
  • Recognize that it may not be a useful or helpful place to be
  • Ask each other how they see things – everything OK? Not OK? List what’s OK and what’s not OK.
  • Ask what would be ideal for me / my organization?   Dream big.
  • Ask where would I / my organization like to be in 5 years’ time
  • Ask what is preventing you / organization from getting there? Not things like money, but beliefs, emotions, assumptions
  • Try to find a crack in your box (a question that can’t be answered from in the box,) or a place where it doesn’t quite make sense, so you can start to dissolve it.
  • Think about what you might do to break out of the box, or dissolve it.
  • See how that makes you / all of you feel. If you feel better, you’re on the right track.
  • “Rinse and repeat” until you begin to get some clarity about the future outside the box.
  • Make note of the ideas and things that make you feel better.
  • Recognize that this is only a start and that you’ve opened up the old box and are working on being outside it AND recognize it’s a never-ending process. Try not to go from one box to another.
  • Keep the walls/bounds fragile and transparent.

[1] Willis Harman, “The Scientific Exploration of Consciousness: Towards an Adequate Epistemology” Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1994.


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. IRONY!!! Two weeks ago, a colleague connected me with two other people, with the idea that the 3 of us might come up with some new and very different approaches to solving a very complex problem for a large organization. One person was a very skilled and out-of-the-box technologist, one a very senior intel analyst and leadership trainer, and myself, a strategist and planner with some models for understanding people. After some intense discussions, we came up with an amazing solution. Then we began to write the proposal. To me, it was obvious. We were selling a consultancy product supported by technology. To the technologist, we were selling technology supported by consultancy, and to the intel analyst, we were selling an intel product/service. Each of us was so entrapped by our particular box! We finally decided that what we are selling is a combination of all three, and we’re going to leave it to the customer to decide on the emphasis.

  2. Thank you Chris. I like your ideas, too. I often use “It would be ideal if…” or ask what futuristic ideas from sc-fi or fantasy they might like to see. But I do like your idea of asking”when.”

  3. All great points to build a system for out-of-the-box thinking.

    When it involves thinking outside of the box, I use brute force.
    The system side of me uses cause/effect diagramming. I sometimes go as far as TRIZ.

    When I’m with a person, I take in their life story so I know the real things that are driving them. Did they always win? Were they quiet as a child? How did they get to where they are now? What makes them successful.

    Then I what I learned and start asking questions to challenge their most deeply held assumptions. What would happen when we do this? (yes, not if, but when)