Learn to Color Outside the Lines

When did you stop thinking like a child and turn into an adult?  When did you set aside wonder, play, imagination, and innocence to put on the drab attributes of ‘responsible’ activity?  Was there an unwritten rule in your household that made you do it?  What made you feel that the way you acted or thought about things up until that point was no longer acceptable?  Did you decide you had to think like everyone else to be accepted or to be successful?  Was there a moment in time when you felt you had to make the change or life just couldn’t continue?  Or did it just happen, with no warning or conscious decision on your part?  Most people go through that change at some point, but we lose something in doing so.  This is why the leaders of many companies find it so difficult to think in innovative and imaginative ways.  I, unfortunately, see a lot of companies respond to circumstances out of desperation, rather than from a perspective of openness to change and possibility.  They can’t think outside the box or the walls of their office.  Many times when my management consulting team undertakes an organization’s operations assessment, we see a pattern of reactive and desperate decision-making. Sometimes organizations stall and die because they won’t think creatively–they fall into the trap of what they have come to see as acceptable behavior, even when that behavior is counterproductive.

I have a friend in New Mexico who has the most incredible daughter, Kaylen.  I think of Kaylen often when I think about adults who can’t think outside the box.  When Kaylen started kindergarten, her teacher instructed all the students to color a picture.  So Kaylen colored the picture the way she wanted—she used lots of colors and drew bold, sweeping strokes to create what she felt was a beautiful scene.  But Kaylen’s teacher wrote a negative note back to Kaylen, saying she needed to stay inside the lines.  When her mother asked her about the note, Kaylen very patiently explained that the teacher said she was to color the picture, so she had done so in the way she felt was very beautiful—the teacher never said anything about having to color within the lines.  That wisdom was from a 5-year old!!!  Kaylen will make an awesome business strategy consultant someday.  I hope she stays this way!

Did you know that creative and reactive are both antonyms and anagrams?  Antonyms are opposites; anagrams are different words that contain the same letters.  It makes me wonder if we become reactive when we stop being creative.  Kaylen wasn’t letting the lines force her way of thinking. She colored her picture the way she saw it in her head, without regard for artificial constraints or external expectations.  If organizations would spend more time visualizing their organization in this way instead of forcing themselves to ‘color inside the lines,’ maybe they could create the organizations that they really want to be.  Regardless of all the business consultants in the world, it is a company’s executive leadership that must be able to see what they want their organization to be if they are ever to create it.  If these leaders can’t visualize what they really, truly want, they will have to settle for the kind of lesser organization they allow themselves to see.  If they only see chaos, the company will continue to work in chaos because that is what they know.  The cure is for leaders to not allow others’ expectations or preconceived notions to set the boundaries of their organization, their imagination, their vision, or their success.  We tell our children to not follow the path of their peers:  “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”  Yet, I see business owners on a regular basis trying to conform to the expectations of others rather than visualizing their own picture of success.

Kaylen rocked her teacher’s world by not conforming.  Yet, it is the conforming that begins to blend companies to non-distinction.  Is that what you want?  Is it your goal and vision to look just like your competition?  When our clients can get back to the basics of challenging themselves and their thinking patterns, it is only then that they can change the direction of their company and create new boundaries, new lines of services, and new growth.  It is only through getting back to being creative and not being reactive that the life blood begins to flow vigorously through the veins of an organization.  As part of the executive leadership, you have the power to influence the imagination of your staff.  You can let them tap into their inner child to create wonderful new ideas or you can squash that child-like behavior and continue down the path of mediocrity.  The choice is yours.  Lead by example.  Follow Kaylen’s lead–dare to color outside the lines!  No, not just dare—revel in it!


  • Brad Closson September 20, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Great post Penny. Wonderful example. “Wonder” is a powerful thing that we all must practice all the time.

    Brad Closson
    Connective Management

  • Jim Adcock September 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm


    Last year I went through the final stages of being miserable coloring inside the lines. I broke free of that, started remaking my life the way I wanted it to be and have been more successful and happier for it. I just didn’t have the paradigm to describe it.

    Now I do! Thanks!

  • g September 27, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Give a listen to Harry Chapin’s song “Flowers Are Red”.

  • Penny September 28, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Harry Chapin caught the very essence of my frustration in the song lyrics. I’ll have to use that song in some of my presentations. Thank you for sharing!

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